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News Maryland Baltimore County Arbutus Lansdowne

Bills to raise the bar for state referendum needs further study [Editorial]

Maryland's Constitution provides recourse, the referendum, to those who believe bad laws are on the books or new laws are necessary. The general idea is, let's put it to a vote.

The process for getting a referendum question on the statewide ballot begins with gathering a certain number of signatures on a petition. Enough signatures, and the ballot question becomes one of your choices on Election Day.

But what about those signatures? Who gets to sign? How are the signatures to be gathered? Who can gather them? How many are necessary?

Two bills before the General Assembly address these questions. If passed, they would put up possibly insurmountable obstacles to the referendum process.

One of the measures, House Bill 493, would raise the bar in testing for petitioner and signer legitimacy. In addition to requiring more financial disclosure from a petitioning organization, it would entail new triggers for disqualification involving the training the petition circulator received, an address change by the signer, the willingness of signers to agree to public disclosure of their names, and more.

The bill, entitled the "Referendum Integrity Act," would set up at least 19 new hoops to jump through for those pushing for a referendum. Taken individually, each may seem a modest change. Taken together, they become a formidable barrier.

And, while we would agree that some clarity for petition signers would be in order, some requirements of a petition signer are already onorus. For example, in 2010, the Howard County elections board tossed out over 1,000 signatures because the name on the petition wasn't identical to the one on their voter registration cards. That could mean someone with the name Thomas would have their signature tossed if they signed "Tom."

Common sense would have allowed it to stay. The interpretation of the law doesn't.

The other measure, Senate Bill 706, would set a new threshhold for the number of signatures to be gathered from 3 percent of votes cast for governor to a new number to be set at 5 percent of all qualified voters in the state on the day SB 706 is passed.

Doing the arithmetic, we can see that would boost the threshhold from about 45,600 (3 percent of those who voted for governor) to about 188,000 (5 percent of Maryland voters). That raises the bar more than threefold. A raise in the threshhold might be in order, but this particular increase seems arbitrary and excessive.

Since 1915, the referendum process has been an important tool of democracy. Since that time, referendum questions have appeared on statewide ballots 18 times. Eleven were approved, seven rejected. It has been used by diverse groups, from grassroots organizations to special interests. So our elected officials should take extreme care before making changes.

These two bills being considered now may have worthy elements, such as disallowing "bounty" payments to circulators for signatures, that would enhance the effectiveness of a referendum. However, the criticism by Republicans that these bills have the appearance of a blunt instrument being used by the majority party, the Democrats, to consolidate power is not lost on us.

That's why we believe that this issue deserves further study and hearings and more public input. From that, perhaps. a new measure can be crafted. But let's leave this for another session of the General Assembly.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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