Why I think the Question 1 recount is a good thing

The current train of thought regarding the recount of the votes for and against Question 1 — a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana and establish a market for such — is mostly about cost and time. Never one to stay on a current train if it’s going no where, I spent some time talking to folks involved in the No on 1 campaign. I also made my way to the Department of Public Safety building in Augusta on Friday where the Secretary of State’s office is overseeing the process.

Recount teams work in groups of three — supporters, opponents and Secretary of State office staff — on stacks of ballots that arrive in locked, blue boxes carried by state police officers. Last week, counters worked on ballots from the largest municipalities, and teams count each stack of ballots twice. This week they’ll be working on ballots from 25 municipalities specifically requested by the No on 1 team.

No on 1 representative Newell Augur said the opposition picked up  votes “in nearly every town we counted” last week, though exact numbers were unavailable when we talked. Augur also said the gain would be higher were the Yes on 1 side as flexible with contested ballots as he felt opponents were being.

Augur quipped about proponents inflexibility belying their confidence in the surety of their victory.

Augur and Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap explained the variety of voter deviations that can lead to a contested ballot. Augur described how some voters filled in the letter “o” in the word no that followed the questions on the ballot. Dunlap said voters circle, mark “x’s,” or draw lines to indicate preference rather than fill in the allotted oval.

On election day, roughly 65 percent of votes were counted by electronic tabulators; and Dunlap said that currently the state leases with only one company for one model. Some 200 towns still tabulate by hand, and a portion of the errors found in recounts are often related to transposed digits (example:  24 instead of 42).

Tabulators are programmed to designate ballots with unclear intentions for review. In the case of the hand recount, those with unclear intent may become among the contested ballots supporters and opponents try to reach consensus on. If no consensus is reached, contested ballots are set aside for judicial review should a narrow margin at the end of a recount warrant such a measure.

Augur, Dunlap, and No on 1 recount volunteers Hillary Lister and Susan Meehan acknowledge that the gains seen during the first week of the recount are not representative of a rate of increase that could overturn the outcome yet. However, opponents are quick to add that the first set of municipalities were more supportive of the measure, so gains for the opposition in those areas were not expected.

No on 1 volunteer Susan Meehan at the recount site in Augusta.  Photo by Trish Callahan

No on 1 volunteer Susan Meehan at the recount site in Augusta. Photo by Trish Callahan

People close to the recount process say opponents must overcome a gap of somewhere around 4,000 votes to overturn unofficial election results. The gap is a compelling less than one half of one percent.

Less than one half of one percent of over 750,000 votes cast is a pretty insignificant gap, small enough to give us all things to think about and talk about while we’re waiting for the recount process to run its course.

Things like, is 50.15 percent of the vote enough for a legislative mandate or should the threshold for passage of referenda be higher in future elections? Given the out of state involvement in Question 1 and the funding disparity between supporters and opponents, should we rethink how we handle the disclosure of political organization information and donor names? 

Is it appropriate to represent a complex, almost 30 page proposal like Question 1 with a simple yes or no question for voters?

And thank goodness for the recount giving voters and legislators time to take a closer look at that almost 30 page proposal.  It creates a closed and highly regulated market that reserves 60 percent of growing licenses for larger enterprises who may not have Mainers’ economic or health best interests in mind, or so say activists involved in the opposition.  (Click here or click here.)

Besides concerns about long-term impacts on Maine’s renowned medical marijuana program, activists want small business-operating Mainers to be the predominant drivers of a future recreational marijuana market — using a natural resource Mainers are among the best at growing and harvesting to generate money in Maine that stays in Maine with minimal out of state investment.

It’s an “add water and stir” instant recipe for diversifying our lagging economy if done right.

Doing it right might mean less regulation instead of more, marijuana activist Donny Christen told me.  Christen is having a proposal reviewed by the Secretary of State’s office that would replace the Question 1 proposal with an outright removal of marijuana from the Maine statute (17A) that handles prohibited substances.

Christen plans to circulate a petition to try to get the proposal on the 2018 ballot, but he’d prefer to see the idea sponsored by a legislator in the upcoming session. Christen’s proposal allows for prohibition to remain in place for minors and allows for a minimal amount of regulation at first. Christen thinks the state should let the market develop organically, building it with mostly small businesses, and adding regulations over time as needs arise.

Should the Yes side prevail after the recount, Christen sees his proposal as a way for legislators to honor the wishes of voters by repealing marijuana prohibition while going back to the drawing board on establishing what that market will look like.

Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau favors revisiting the language of the referenda that passed, especially given the narrow margin by which Question 1 passed. Democratic Speaker of the House, Sara Gideon is reported to be “less open to major changes.”

The recount gives Thibodeau and activists time to reach out to Gideon to help her be more open to changes, should the initial results stand. A thoughtful bipartisan effort could easily result in legislation that honors the will of voters regarding marijuana legalization while preserving the economic and health best interests of Maine citizens.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.