"The voters can certainly be trusted to do what they think is right," he said. "It's up to you as a citizen to make an informed decision on whether or not you want to sign it. The only way an individual can be coerced is if they allow themselves to be coerced."

Zirkin said he encountered petition workers in various places during the local drive.

"I had a good give and take with some people," he said. "I was approached a number of times, and some of them were well-informed, and some of them who were collecting signatures weren't well-informed."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states have tried to regulate the companies in a variety of ways, from banning payment per signature to making signature gatherers wear badges that show they are hired to do the job. The Supreme Court has ruled that banning paid circulators violates the First Amendment, according to the conference.

Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said his research has shown fraud is not more likely when signature collectors are paid.

"Volunteers sometimes are overly zealous, and will be forging signatures or doing illegal activities with respect to collection because they're zealots," he said.

He also said it's not uncommon for citizens to misunderstand what they're signing when they put their names on a petition. "Citizens don't necessarily know what they're signing," he said, "just as lawmakers sometimes introduce bills which they don't fully know the ramifications of."

David McCuan, a professor and expert on the petition industry who teaches political science at Sonoma State University in California, said the Baltimore County case highlights the spending behind such efforts.

"You have a moneyed interest against a moneyed interest, developers against developers," he said. "When that happens, obviously spending goes way up."

When so much money is spent on a local issue, "the stakes are raised for everyone concerned," McCuan said. "Whether you are a well-heeled, well-moneyed interest, or you are a citizen- based interest, your ability to pay to play is one of the most important variables."

"Democracy has become big business," said Kaplow, the lawyer for the political committee behind the referendum drive. "It's unfortunately naive to think it doesn't cost money to bring an issue to the ballot."

alisonk@baltsun.com

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