AUGUSTA (NEWS CENTER Maine) — The Maine Legislature is officially back at work. Lawmakers began the 2018 session Wednesday morning in Augusta, and on the first day they were already faced with a controversy: How easy should it be for citizens to collect signatures on referendum petitions?

Election days are primetime for petition circulators. There is a concentration of voters at the polls, and under current law, petitioners are allowed to set up outside the voting area, but with easy access to voters after they cast ballots. But the Legislature is being asked to make it more difficult.

Under a bill requested by Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, petitioners, candidates and others not directly involved with the voting would have to be located a significant distance away from the actual polls — in most cases outside the building.

That idea doesn't sit well with referendum groups like Citizens of Ranked Choice Voting. They had petitions at the polls on Nov. 7 for a "people's veto" of the Legislature's vote on ranked choice voting, which itself was passed as the result of a referendum in 2016.

"Any attack on direct democracy is unacceptable," said spokesperson Crystal Canney. She said the proposed law would make it harder for voters find and sign petitions.

"People need to have more voice in their democracy not less voice,” Canney said.

Secretary Dunlap acknowledged the controversy.

"There's no effort here on our behalf to throw anybody out of the polling place, although that is what the language says, and it got people's attention," Dunlap said.

The proposal definitely attracted attention, evidenced by a full house for Wednesday's public hearing on LD 1726.

Dunlap said he does not want to stifle signature gathering but is concerned that some polling places get too crowded with petitioners, nonprofit groups and others, and that it can discourage voters.

"When I hear voters tell me they don't go to the polls anymore they vote absentee because they can't stand this I think we have to talk about it."

Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the co-chairman of the committee hearing the bill, said the issue is worth discussing but also said there have been many complaints from the public about the idea of restricting signature gathering. He said there has also been some support for the idea.

That committee will be analyzing the details of the proposal over the next several months. The new session ends in April. Meanwhile, ranked choice voting supporters continue their petition drive for a peoples veto vote.

Canney said they have about 50,000 of the roughly 62,000 signatures they need, with a February deadline.