The Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the group behind the effort to repeal in-state tuition for illegal immigrants are sparring over the website used in the signature-gathering process -- in what could be a preview of court battles to come.
The ACLU said in a release today that concerns that the website, mdpetitions.com, is "illegal and vulnerable to fraud," led the group ask the State Board of Elections to "scrutinize" its legality. (Here's a link to the 20-page letter.)
"Online systems for signature gathering in support of a petition drive are new to Maryland, and raise serious questions about whether election officials can meaningfully scrutinize the authenticity of signatures, verify each signer’s intent, and investigate possible acts of fraud," Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, said in a statement.
Del. Neil Parrott, creator of the website and a leader in the petition drive, fired back that the ACLU's allegations are "baseless" and said "Maryland citizens have a constitutional right to continue to sign the petition online."
The Washington County Republican also called the ACLU "hypocritical" for questioning the petition-signer validation process when the same group frequently calls for lesser voter identification standards at the polls.
The back-and-forth comes as the Elections Board is in the process of validating the first round of signatures submitted by the group. About 18,000 were due at the end of May, and the board reported today that 44,000 have been deemed valid.
That's nearly 80 percent of the overall requirement; 55,736 must be submitted by the end of this month. If the petition is successful, Maryland voters would decide in November 2012 whether the state should give in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants.
The petition is a reaction to a law passed this year by the General Assembly. It would provide the discounted tuition to undocumented students who have attended at least three years of high school in Maryland and whose parents have filed tax returns. The law is due to take effect July 1, but a successful petition drive would stop it in its tracks.
The ACLU's letter to the board, and its press release, could be a signal that the pro-tuition forces are gearing up for a court battle over the petition.
"The online petition system at mdpetitions.com could be highly susceptible to fraud," the ACLU said in a statement. "Any user who knows the name, zip code, and birth date of an individual can easily generate a petition for that person, forge the individual’s signature, and fraudulently verify the petition on the individual’s behalf."
"Maryland law prohibits the use of “pre-filled” petition forms such as those generated by the website, instead requiring that each signer of a petition personally provide the relevant information about himself or herself," the ACLU continues.
Parrott said he consulted with the Board of Elections as he developed the website and predicted it will withstand scrutiny. He says the ACLU's move "seems to be their opening salvo to a planned lawsuit."
"The law that they point to clearly states that the information on the form may be typed or handwritten," Parrott writes in a statement. "Nowhere in the law does it indicate that a signer cannot be aided by someone filling in the information for them."