US federal appeals court rules Maine cannot restrict who can gather ballot initiative signatures News
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US federal appeals court rules Maine cannot restrict who can gather ballot initiative signatures

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit Thursday ruled that the state of Maine cannot restrict who can gather signatures in ballot initiatives for state elections, in a voting case that turned to focus on freedom of political speech.

The court ruled that a Maine law limiting those eligible to gather signatures for ballot initiatives to only in-state residents and registered voters is unconstitutional.

We the People PAC, Maine state Representative Billy Bob Faulkingham, a nonprofit organization and a professional signature-collector sued Maine’s secretary of state in December 2020, filing for a temporary restraining order and/or a preliminary injunction. The case, We the People PAC v. Bellows, concerned the organization’s own ballot initiative to ban non-citizens from voting in state elections.

At issue was a provision of the Maine Constitution that defines a ballot circulator as “a person who solicits signatures for written petitions” and requires such circulators to be legal residents of the state and registered to vote in state elections. The plaintiffs argued that the requirements violated the right to “core political speech” protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, relying on a 1988 case, Meyer v. Grant, that upheld the rights of paid professional circulators.

The district court denied the plantiffs’ application for a temporary restraining order but granted the preliminary injunction in February 2021, the same day the ballot initiative was due for the November election, but ruling the plaintiffs were likely to suffer “irreparable harm” if they were prevented from gathering signatures for future campaigns.

The First Circuit sided with the previous decision, ruling that “the residency requirement does impose a severe burden on core political speech” that excludes over 250 million eligible voters in the US who may be interested in the electoral process. The court also upheld the district court’s ruling that the voter registration requirement was likely to violate protected political speech under the First Amendment.