Local activists are up in arms over a new bill that would make it illegal for people to gather signatures for citizen referendums at polling places.

On Wednesday, several activists crowded into the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee to oppose LD 1726, which was put in at the request of Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. In addition to the signature-gathering ban, the measure would also prohibit political activities and exit polling from within 50 feet of the voting place and within 50 feet of the pathway from the parking lot to the polling place.

In an email to The Free Press, Dunlap said he does not anticipate that the bill will get much traction, but that he submitted the proposal in response to the number of complaints his office receives about the conduct of political candidates, over-aggressive signature gatherers, and other activists at polling places. He added that election officials are increasingly seeing activists set up tables to inform voters about potential referendum campaigns as well as individuals known as “poll blockers,” who argue with voters about why they shouldn’t sign a particular petition.

“I’ve been a strong supporter of the initiative process through my entire tenure as Secretary of State, and that has not changed,” wrote Dunlap. “But we have to present the polling place to the voter as a place where they can securely and freely vote; everything else is subordinate to that. When a voter tells me that they only vote by absentee ballot now because they can’t tolerate ‘running the gauntlet’ of candidate and issue campaigns, I believe we have to have a conversation, which is what Section 13 presents.”

He said an alternative solution to the problem may be to ask groups to coordinate with town clerks in advance of election day to ensure that there is enough space and that officials know they’re coming.

Under Maine law, the number of signatures a citizen initiative needs to get in order to qualify for the ballot must be at least 10 percent of the number of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election, which is currently over 61,000. There are now three citizen initiatives circulating, including a people’s veto that would force the state to adopt ranked-choice voting for the 2018 elections, a proposal to tax the wealthy to fund homecare for seniors and people with disabilities, and an initiative that would require Maine to join an interstate compact to abolish the Electoral College.

Maine People’s Alliance spokesman Mike Tipping — who helped lead the citizen referendum campaign to increase the minimum wage — argued that continuing to allow activists to gather signatures at polling places is essential to the democratic process.

“Banning volunteer signature gathering on election day would be devastating for Maine’s system of direct democracy and would only benefit wealthy interests with millions to spend on paid signature collection,” said Tipping. “For grassroots efforts like raising the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid, allowing hundreds of volunteers to gather signatures by talking to their neighbors outside their polling places was absolutely critical.”

Lincolnville resident Mike Ray noted that the proposal would also ban groups from fundraising at the polls, such as the local church that raises money for heating assistance.

“I appreciate you taking on the task, but I do wish though that you wouldn’t kick out the church ladies in Lincolnville,” said Ray. “This is how we fill our oil tanks by selling baked goods.”

A handful of people expressed support for the bill, including Portland resident Joshua Chaisson of the group Restaurant Workers of Maine, which lobbied hard to repeal the increase in the subminimum wage for tipped employees. He called Maine People’s Alliance a “deplorable organization” and said he opposed the ranked-choice voting referendum because it is “unconstitutional.”

“If the MPA can continue to put forward referenda that goes against our laws and our Maine values, it will stop at nothing to garner more signatures for what they feel is best for our state,” said Chaisson.

However, former Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine Director George Smith pointed out that voters soundly defeated referendums to allow a casino in York County, ban bear baiting and require universal background checks despite the amount of out-of-state money funding the campaigns. He noted that the governor and Legislature already have the ability to repeal voter-mandated laws and are currently trying to block funding for the new Medicaid expansion law.

“If you want to change the most serious problem I see with the citizen initiative process,” he added, “it would be to find a way to limit the opportunities of the Governor and legislature to deny what the people want. You could start with Medicaid expansion.... I think most of the problems are in this building, not out there.”