The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has upheld a lower court's ruling to allow the referendum question on the November ballot.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has upheld a lower court’s ruling to allow a referendum question on the November ballot that seeks to overturn prior regulatory approval of a planned Central Maine Power Co. transmission corridor through western Maine.
In a ruling issued Thursday, the court affirmed a Maine Superior Court decision that Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap acted appropriately when deciding that opponents of the corridor project had gathered enough valid signatures to place the referendum question on the ballot.
Delbert Reed, a former CMP employee, had challenged Dunlap’s decision in court, based in part on improprieties discovered by the state related to the petition-gathering process. Dunlap threw out some additional signatures but chose not to launch a wide-ranging fraud investigation.
The court suggested that Dunlap could have done more to investigate the allegations of fraud, but that his decision not to pursue the matter further did not constitute “an error of law or an abuse of discretion.”
“Based on all of the evidence presented, combined with the absence of any suggestion of fraud raised by municipal officers, the Secretary of State reasonably determined that such broad assertions were insufficient grounds to launch an additional investigation of the entire campaign,” the ruling states.
CMP’s proposed New England Clean Energy Connect would serve as a conduit for up to 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydroelectric power to reach the New England regional power grid.
CMP contends the project, funded by Massachusetts ratepayers, would benefit Maine and the region by lowering carbon emissions, reducing fossil fuel usage and stabilizing electricity costs. But opponents say the project would create environmental damage and hurt homegrown solar, wind and biomass projects in Maine.
In March, Dunlap said backers of the anti-corridor referendum gathered 69,714 valid signatures, more than the 63,067 required for the referendum question to be placed on the November ballot, even though 12,735 signatures were found to be invalid.
In April, Dunlap tossed out about 2,000 signatures previously counted as valid, but said opponents of CMP’s proposed $1 billion transmission corridor still had enough signatures to trigger a ballot question aimed at stopping the project.
Dunlap examined the actions of eight notaries involved in signature-gathering and determined that three acted improperly, either by circulating petitions themselves and subsequently notarizing petitions for other circulators, or by not administering an oath to circulators in an authorized manner. He also disqualified all the signatures previously determined to be valid from one circulator whose petition was rife with errors.
Reed’s legal challenge to the Elections Division’s initial certification on March 4 remanded the matter back to Dunlap’s office, and he disqualified an additional 2,052 signatures to lower the total to 66,117 valid signatures from registered Maine voters, still above the minimum of 63,067 required to move forward.
Maine Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy ruled in April that Dunlap’s interpretation of the law was sound as it pertained to the gathering of signatures.
If supported by voters in November, the referendum would order the Maine Public Utilities Commission to reverse its 2019 finding that the planned, 145-mile power line stretching from Lewiston to the Quebec border is in the state’s best interests.
A successful referendum to overturn the decision of an apolitical regulatory body would be unprecedented in Maine, and it is unclear whether such an outcome could withstand a legal challenge.
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