Referendum process should be in hands of people, not courts [Editorial]

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the referendum process in Maryland is broken. It most certainly doesn't require a room full of lawyers to determine that, either.

Yet, that is what's happening as Maryland's Court of Special Appeals heard arguments from attorneys for a citizens' group supporting a petition drive and attorneys for developers and the county who believe language used in the drive was not "fair and accurate."

This particular case involves an attempt by members of the group, Citizens Working to Fix Howard County, to get more than a dozen land-use decisions from the county's 2012 comprehensive zoning legislation up for a vote in November's election. Their contention is that before the petition drive last year, they went to the Board of Elections and were told that the format of the petition was acceptable but no ruling would be made on the content of the petition. Then after the signatures were collected, the board ruled against the way the petitioners summarized the bill. Numerous court challenges later, it might come down to a decision next week on whether the referendum question makes the ballot.

It's not the first time Howard County citizens have been rebuffed in the referendum process because of a technicality. In 2009, a Howard County judge ruled that the county elections board was correct to disqualify names on petitions because, in essence, the signatures did not match exactly the signator's name on the voters' rolls or contain a person's full name. This meant, for example, if a person signed Chris Smith and his name was Christopher Smith, the signature would be disallowed.

These kinds of roadblocks make no sense. The criteria should be easy to follow while ensuring that the petitioners reach a certain threshhold of requirements for an issue to get on the ballot. To get us beyond technical difficulties, we'd like to see county executive candidates Allan Kittleman and Courtney Watson pledge to work with the county's state delegation to modify state laws to remove ambiguity from the process, giving residents a clear path to the referendum process.

Laws made by our elected officials should be able to stand the scrutiny of the public. And that means that the petition process to take a bill to referendum should be simple to navigate. It should not take a legal battle to get it done.

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