Hurrah for the Maine Voter!

Invited to rescind the returnable bottle law by out-of-state interests, the Maine voter said ‘No thank you,’ by a six-to-one margin. An evaluation of the increasingly independent and conservation minded voters of the State of Maine.

Maine Voter illustration
Illustrated by Anne Kilham.

From our February 1980 issue.

By Clark T. Irwin, Jr.

Forty years ago, in enumerating It some of the many things he liked about Maine, best-selling author Kenneth Roberts tackled the subject of the Maine voter. “I particularly like the way her citizens have cast their votes for lost causes which they knew to be right,” he wrote, “and have only smiled a wintry smile at the jeers of misguided millions on the bandwagon; the way they refuse that to be in the minority is to be wrong.”

February 1980 issue
February 1980 cover: Grindle Point Light, Islesboro, by Dick Pulliam.

Roberts wrote these words before World War II when Maine voters were chalking up a record for dogged individuality by backing candidates named Hoover, Landon, and Wilkie in the face of successive Roosevelt landslides, and it was this against-the- current crustiness that he undoubtedly had in mind.

In the postwar years, Mainers gave further proof of their independent nature by sending Margaret Chase Smith to the U.S. Senate, making her the first woman to serve in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. (And twenty-four years later, they ousted her, largely due to a feeling that she had come to take their votes for granted.) Maine voters went for Dewey in 1948, supported Ike in ’52 and ’56, then chose Nixon in 1960 over Kennedy; voted for LBJ in ’64, and Humphrey in ’68; went back to Nixon in ’72; and gave Ford a slim majority over Carter in ’76.

For most of the postwar period Maine has been represented by one Democrat and one Republican in the U.S. Senate (Democrat Edmund S. Muskie and Smith primarily, but now Muskie and Republican William S. Cohen). During these years, citizens of the Pine Tree State were establishing a reputation of voting for the man rather than the party, and they underlined this trend by surprising everyone in electing an Independent, James B. Longley, as governor in 1974. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the Maine voter has supported surprisingly progressive legislation in a state whose image, on the national level at least, has been one of rock-ribbed conservatism. Recent legislatures have either pioneered or been in the forefront in enacting laws liberalizing social welfare, defending the consumer, and protecting and reclaiming the environment. Among the environmental measures are laws mandating coastal zoning restrictions and air-cleanliness standards tougher than those of the federal government; establishing a fund to clean up coastal oil spills; and creating a Land Use Regulation Commission, with power to control development of large tracts of Iand, and a Department of Environmental Protection.

The Maine voter’s concern for the state’s environment is also to be seen in the heavy opposition to such energy- and job-producing projects as the Dickey-Lincoln Dam, the Pittston Oil Refinery at Eastport, and the coal-fired power plant proposed for Sears Island in Penobscot Bay. The continued public furor over the use of herbicides and pesticides in controlling hardwood growth and spruce budworm in Maine’s vast forest areas gives further evidence of the Maine voter’s growing concern for his natural environment.

On occasion, moreover, when the state legislature has proved either too lethargic or too timorous to enact environmental legislation, the voters have taken matters into their own hands. Such was the case with the state’s container deposit law. After repeated failures by the legislature to enact a “bottle law,” a group of environmental protection organizations, including the Maine Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, backed a successful petition drive to put the measure up for referendum. The statute, which requires a minimum five-cent deposit on beer and soft-drink containers, was voted into law by a margin of 274,164 to 200,000 in 1976, to take effect at the beginning of 1978.

In following two other forward-looking states — Vermont and Oregon — in setting up a deposit system on cans and bottles to clean up roadside litter, Maine voters came down firmly on the side of the ecological angels. To be sure, there would be inconvenience and expense, irritations that environmental measures often entail but which the average citizen seldom feels.

The inconvenience became apparent early in 1978 when the law went into effect. Grocery store owners, particularly those with limited space, complained about the problems of redeeming, sorting, and storing the flood of returnables. Privately owned redemption centers established to ease the problem complained about slow payments from distributors. And store patrons found that they sometimes had to stand in long lines to return their bottles, particularly in chain supermarkets. Environmental purity was clearly not without its drawbacks.

But despite the grumbling, most Mainers liked the results. Beaches, parking lots, roadsides, parks, alleys, farmers’ fields, and forests rapidly became free of castoff soda cans and beer bottles. Mindful of the five- to twenty-cent deposit attached to the containers, people either held on to their empties or were swiftly followed up by a corps of youngsters with sacks and a lust for windfall deposit profits. Either way, great numbers estimated at 90 percent — of deposit-tagged bottles and cans found their way back to stores and redemption centers.

Some empirical research by Marshall Wiebe, of the Maine Conservation Department and a former member of the Keep Maine Scenic Committee, generated the widely quoted conclusion that the deposit law had reduced roadside container litter by 78 percent, compared to 1977 bottle and can counts.

Wiebe conducted his researches along 3,630 feet of Readfield, South China, and Vassalboro roadside where there were few property owners around to pick up litter. Carefully logging his monthly collections of beverage containers, snack wrappers, cigarette and cigar butts, and other rubbish, Wiebe noticed that total litter was down by one-third.

“When the roadsides became relatively clean,” he hypothesized, “people were reluctant to dump anything.

Somewhat later, in the fall of 1979, the Maine Department of Transportation, after considerable figuring, announced that its litter cleanup costs for the first fiscal year under the bottle law were more than $200,000 below the costs incurred during the last predeposit fiscal year. The bottle law and its ripple effects on the sensibilities of litter-prone citizens had evidently been the prime cause for the reduction in the department’s cleanup bill from $307,000 to $104,000 in that year.

But long before this good news had reached the Maine voter, bottle bill foes had begun marshaling their forces. In the summer of 1978, with the law in effect for only six months, an organization named Citizens for Repeal of the Forced Deposit Law announced a campaign to secure enough signatures on petitions to force another referendum on the question — this time to kill the law. Spokespersons for the effort were a Cape Elizabeth beer distributor and one Cynthia Mack of Portland, a sometime University of Maine employee who was hired to coordinate the campaign. Mrs. Mack described herself as a housewife and said her organization was a citizens’ group.

Mrs. Mack and the repeal organization argued that the mandatory deposits were a burden to consumers; that the returned bottles were a storage and sanitation problem, especially for small stores; that bottles and cans were only 20 percent of litter; and that the deposits depressed beverage sales and shifted tax revenues to New Hampshire where disgruntled customers from communities near the state line took their patronage. Such considerations, Mrs. Mack said, had opened her eyes to the defects of the deposit law, which she had initially supported.

By February 20, 1979, the repeal interests were able to deliver petitions bearing some 45,000 signatures to the office of the Secretary of State. Enough survived legal scrutiny for proper name, address, and age to meet the 37,046-name requirement of the state’s referendum formula. The referendum question was scheduled for the 1979 fall election, and the battle was joined.

Noting that more than 300 sporting, civic, and environmental groups in Maine had supported the bottle law in the 1976 referendum, Maine Audubon Society Executive Director William Ginn predicted that repeal would fail, adding, “It’s sour grapes to repeal this thing now.” Meanwhile, by mid-May, 1979, the Business Legislation Committee of the legislature found itself staring at no fewer than ten bills to amend or repeal the bottle law. Attorney General Richard S. Cohen ruled that most of the proposed changes would have to be placed on a referendum ballot, since the law under debate had been enacted through referendum. But legislators did approve two “emergency” amendments that allowed storekeepers to set aside three business hours per day when they could refuse to handle bottles (owners of small stores that prepared pizza and sandwiches for lunchtime trade had strongly urged that) and authorized storekeepers to refuse to accept more than 240 containers from a single customer in one trip (one store owner had protested that an entire morning had been wrecked by the arrival of a pickup truck loaded to the gills with bottles and cans).

Anti-repeal groups like the Maine Citizens for Returnable Containers, coordinated in Augusta by Thomas A. Bertocci, entered the fray. Referring to the transportation department’s announcement on cleanup savings, Bertocci said: “I believe people of Maine don’t really need statistics to establish how remarkably the bottle Iaw has worked to clean up our roadsides, and also the parks, beaches, and city streets.” In fact, the most common anti-repeal theme, as displayed on bumper stickers and ads, was, “The bottle law works. Vote No on Repeal.”

Not even the bottle-law opponents tried to argue that the law was a failure. While still pointing to the inconvenience of storing and redeeming bottles, and citing the plight of small-store owners, they now embraced a different line of argument.

Buoyed by contributions from the beverage and container industries, the repeal forces, who by now had changed their name to Maine Citizens for Litter Control and Recycling, paid the Media Group agency of San Francisco $87,250 for an advertising campaign that produced a controversial television commercial.

The widely televised ad began by panning the camera over a peaceful meadow. “We’ve come a long way toward removing bottles and cans from the litter stream in our state,” an announcer intoned. The camera paused in its perusal to linger upon an unappealing heap of junk featuring a castoff tire and fast-food packages. Lest the point be overlooked, the announcer noted that, “Bottles and cans are only 20 percent of the problem. And what does a forced deposit do about that?”

He hastened to answer his own question: “What we need is a comprehensive law to deal with all litter in the state of Maine.” The camera lifted its glassy eye to the horizon, whereupon a cheery, golden glow greeted the viewer as the announcer continued: “And there’s one just over the horizon. Let’s get the whole job done. Vote Yes on [referendum question] One.”

The chief difficulty with this approach as critics were quick to point out was that no one in the legislature or elsewhere had drafted such a plan, or indicated over which horizon it lay. This prompted the Maine Citizens for Returnable Containers, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Maine Audubon Society, the Maine Municipal Association, and the Maine Farm Bureau to petition Cumberland County Superior Court for a restraining order and injunction against the ad campaign.

But Justice Robert Clifford found that the court could not oblige the pro-deposit coalition because they had demonstrated no irreparable harm from a denial of their request, and because the advertisement seemed to violate no Maine law while being protected by First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. Attorney General Cohen likewise could find no evident conflict with Maine law, but he was exercised enough to make public his feelings on the advertising campaign.

The ad, Cohen said, displayed “calculated intent to deceive the public as to the issue presented in the bottle bill referendum.” The requested Yes vote, he indicated, would merely repeal the deposit law, without having any formal effect on any proposal for a comprehensive litter law, even had one been announced.

Mrs. Mack conceded that the television ad might be confusing, but she attributed the confusion to the wording of the referendum question, “Do you wish to repeal the’ Returnable Container Law’ (bottle bill)?” That is, people who were happy with the law would have to vote No to keep it. There was widespread speculation during the referendum campaign that many voters would fail to grasp this paradoxical point. In the event, the concern was unfounded.

The campaign wore on. Critics of the ads for repeal objected to the apparent assumption that a state couldn’t have both a bottle law and a comprehensive litter law on the books at the same time. Washington State voters, it was noted, faced just such a situation in November. There, a comprehensive Iitter law that imposed taxes on litter-generating industries to finance state cleanups and antilitter education was proposed to be joined to a bottle and can deposit scheme.

But Mrs. Mack argued that the two laws could not coexist. Bottles and cans are the most profitable items for recycling, she said, but a deposit law keeps most of them out of the recycling stream. They are reused instead.

The parallel with the Washington State system grew stronger when, in the last week before the referendum, the comprehensive litter plan that had lurked “just over the horizon” finally poked its head over the skyline. State Representative Edith Beaulieu, a Portland Democrat, circulated a two- page typescript sketch of a comprehensive plan that would impose taxes on retail items that commonly become litter. The revenues would fund recycling centers, support the teaching of an “antilitter ethic” to Mainers, and establish a “Youth Litter Corps” to police the roadsides.

Citing a need to look at “the total picture,” Mrs. Beaulieu demanded, “Why are we not doing something about the wine bottles and tomato-paste cans, the mustard jars and all the newspapers?” In doing that, her plan would strongly resemble the Washington law enacted in 1971 — a plan, it was pointed out, that shifts the costs of littering from the litterer to the general public through a tax for cleanup. The Maine deposit law, on the other hand, carries the consequence that if you toss a deposit container out the car window, you have tossed away a nickel or more. And that last feature, bottle law proponents claimed, ensured the appearance of an informal but highly effective “Youth Litter Corps” ever alert for valuable containers.

Finally, the wisdom of the Washington comprehensive Iitter plan was called into question when Governor Dixy Lee Ray of Washington was quoted as saying that after seven years of the plan in her state, “Litter is worse than I’ve ever seen it.”

Meanwhile, another issue was developing that alienated many Mainers who might otherwise have been sympathetic to the repeal drive. It was becoming clear the “Maine Citizens for Litter Control and Recycling” were generally not citizens and often not from Maine.

The repeal contributions that had totalled $183,000 by the week before the Nov. 6 referendum were reported to the Secretary of State as including: $25,000 from Anheuser-Busch, Inc.; $30,000 from the Can Manufacturing Institute; $6,445 from the Anchor Hocking people; $2,000 from Pabst Brewing; and some $6,000 from beer wholesalers’ organizations in California, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. By contrast, Maine Citizens for Returnable Containers, the principal anti-repeal group, had raised less than $20,000, almost all of it from within the state.

Governor Joseph E. Brennan responded to news of the nine-to-one funding lead held by repeal forces by suggesting that Maine election laws might need redrafting to prevent such a “totally lopsided” flow of cash. “I am obviously concerned about out-of-state interests and corporations coming in and having a disproportionate influence on a public policy question in this state,” he declared.

And Robert Gardiner, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, added, “They are only trying to deceive Maine people and further their own business interests which are not in Maine’s interest.”

To judge by the flow of angry letters to newspapers, many Mainers already convinced of the efficacy of the bottle law were now even more opposed to repeal because they felt out-of-state money was trying to make a test case here that could be held up as evidence elsewhere in the country where disposable container legislation was a hot issue. If these canny, thrifty Yankees have rejected their own bottle law, the argument could run, then we don’t want one here, do we?

An October poll of 500 registered voters found two-thirds of them opposed to repeal, and Governor predicted that Maine voters would support the law “overwhelmingly.” But many people wondered whether the phrasing of the question, the low voter turnout expected in an off-year election, the advertising tactics of the repeal group, and the massiveness of industry contributions to the repeal forces might not swamp the law anyway.

The returns started coming in on the evening of November 6, and it immediately became clear that the Maine voter liked the bottle law.

When the final vote was tallied, 41,480 Mainers had voted for repeal of the bottle law, but 226,687 had voted the No required to save it. The 84.5 percent vote to keep the bill astounded Secretary of State Rodney S. Quinn, who declared with disbelief, “You never get that kind of a decision in a democracy.” And considering that the total referendum vote accounted for only 38.8 percent of the Mainers registered to vote in the 1978 election, the actual margin of approval among Maine people could actually be higher still, assuming that satisfied folks were more inclined to stay home than were the people grim for repeal.

The bottle law triumphed in Portland, Lewiston, Augusta, Waterville, Bangor, and Caribou by six-to-one and seven-to-one. It was endorsed in Belfast, where farmers had taken out a newspaper ad to note that the deposit law had freed their fields of cans and bottles that damaged machinery and injured livestock. Affluent York (396 to 1,421) and depressed Eastport (sixty-five to 358) voted against repeal. Meddybemps turned the repeal forces down by a vote of twenty-two to ten.

The most lopsided margin of victory for the bottle law may have been in Beaver Cove, a township on the southeast shore of Moosehead Lake. A storekeeper there was reported to be so set against deposits that he refused to carry any containers that required a deposit. That makes the Beaver Cove vote interesting: one for repeal, thirty-four against. In all, at least 499 of Maine’s 500 municipalities voted to keep the bottle law. (The elections division clerks at the Secretary of State’s office think they recall one town that voted for repeal, but haven’t been able to find it on the master tally lists.)

By contrast, voters in the state of Washington rejected the attempt to graft a deposit Iaw onto their comprehensive litter plan, and Ohio voters rejected a deposit law there, where a coalition of labor and big business spent $1.6 million to oppose the law — about seventeen times as much as the pro-deposit people.

The November balloting left Maine in the ranks of the seven states with deposit laws, the others being Vermont, Oregon, Connecticut, Michigan, and Iowa. (The Delaware legislature has endorsed a deposit law, but it won’t take effect unless its neighboring states do the same.) Massachusetts Governor Edward King vetoed a bottle law for that state, claiming it would cost 500 jobs — though Maine labor groups generally supported this state’s law primarily from the conviction that it is a net creator of jobs. The fear of lost jobs and heavy spending by bottle law opponents are potent factors. Across the nation, thirty-two states rejected various forms of antilitter or returnable container legislation last year. But if the national trend has not yet begun to turn, bottle bill proponents see hope for New England.

“A regional approach is coming,” predicts Bill Ginn of the Maine Audubon Society, with the Vermont and Maine laws showing the way.

But even Ginn, one of the most active proponents of the bottle law, agreed recently that there are some defects in the present arrangement. The one-cent handling fee for redeemers may have to be changed to allow small stores and redemption centers to cover their costs.

In Vermont, a 20 percent share of the deposit gives the handlers more from the higher-deposit bottles, and automatically indexes their return for prices inflation on beverages. And given that people are liable to toss containers that held lemonade, wine, milk, and iced tea along the roadsides, environmentalists feel that the deposits might prudently be extended to some containers other than carbonated beverages and beer. Ginn also noted that many of the seventy-eight redemption centers licensed by the Maine Department of Agriculture never opened or have stopped doing business because of the thousands of dollars that must be tied up in containers awaiting pickup and because of the expense of storage space. No redemption centers operate in cities, he said, because stores are forced to compete for customers by redeeming the containers themselves. So the legislature may consider barring markets from redeeming containers to promote the redemption centers, which are now found mainly in rural areas.

Whatever the defects of the bottle bill, it is noteworthy that the Maine voter, who is statistically older, poorer, and less well-educated than the national average, was willing to weigh the environmental benefits of the bottle law against the costs and to calculate that it’s well worth the trouble.

When the final accounting of referendum campaign expenditures was made public late last year, it appeared that the repeal effort certainly wasn’t worth the trouble — or cash expenditure — for the repeal forces. Maine Citizens for Litter Control and Recycling reported spending all but about $2,000 of the $208,486 raised from brewers, bottlers, container manufacturers, and trade organizations, most of them from outside the state. Thus, the repeal effort cost in excess of five dollars per Yes vote received. Opponents of repeal spent $28,767, or about thirteen cents per No vote. A good Yankee bargain, some would say.

Clearly the bottle-law repeal effort backfired, and the Maine voter, in dealing a stinging rebuke to anti-bottle law forces, has indicated he hopes that he has heard the last of efforts to dismantle one of his hard-won environmental laws. In doing so, environmentalists hope, the Maine voter may have gone just another step forward in reestablishing the truth of that old adage, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” Or, as one wag put it: “As Maine cleans, so cleans the nation.”