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State leaders contemplate changes to referendum process

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After petitions sent three Maryland laws to voters this fall — the first such referendums in 20 years — state leaders said Tuesday that the process designed in the era before electronic signatures needs a fresh look.

"Our forefathers never imagined everything that we did in Annapolis would be subject to referendum," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said.

Opponents of same-sex marriage, the Dream Act that granted in-state tuition to some illegal immigrants and the redrawn congressional boundaries harnessed the petition process, gathering enough signatures to place each law on the November ballot. Voters upheld them all, and the referendum process underwent new public scrutiny.

Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Gov. Martin O'Malley are considering changes.

Shortly after the election, O'Malley told the news media, "It's probably been made a little too easy" to put laws up for referendum. On Tuesday, his spokeswoman confirmed the governor thinks the process "needs to be looked at." Miller questioned whether electronic signatures should be verified by someone other than the people who gave them. And Busch said lawmakers should reconsider the number of signatures required to send a law to the ballot — a threshold, he said, that was set in the days they were collected by going door-to-door.

"It should be fair," Busch said. "I don't think it should be easy; I don't think it should be hard. … We're a representative democracy, and we're sent here to make decisions. We can't have a referendum every time someone doesn't like one."

Other Democrats and some Republican lawmakers are working on legislation in addition to the changes contemplated by leadership.

Part of the success in petitioning the laws in 2012 relied on Hagerstown Del. Neil Parrott, who developed the website mdpetitions.com that allowed voters to download petitions and submit them. His fellow Republicans named him Man of the Year. Some described him as having granted the minority party its most effective tool against the Democratic supermajority that dominates both chambers of the General Assembly.

"This is a fundamental right to the citizens of Maryland. It's an important right that needs to be preserved," said Parrott, who said electronic signatures did not play an outsized role in the petition efforts. "Most of the petitions happened the same way they would have a hundred years ago."

Nonpartisan watch dog group Common Cause said the petition process should be protected, calling Maryland "one of the few states that doesn't have a very robust referendum history."

The group would back reforms that involve better reporting and more accountability about who is financing petition drives, said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

Democrats can expect resistance from Republican leaders, who want to reserve the process for high-profile, controversial laws.

"The only reason that they want to raise the threshold is to apparently make it inconvenient," said House Minority Leader Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Republican from Southern Maryland. "We believe that's wrong, and we believe that it's an incursion into the rights of the minority."

Parrott said he plans to introduce legislation requiring the wording on a referendum petition to match the language on the ballot. He also plans to revive bills that would protect the privacy of people who signed petitions.

A similar measure has already been pre-filed by Del. Barbara Robinson, a Baltimore Democrat. Del. Eric Luedtke, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said he proposed to tighten rules that allow people to verify their own signatures and outlaw so-called "bounty systems" that pay circulators for collecting signatures. Such payments, Luedtke said, are illegal in voter registration drives but legal for petition drives.

"The new technology is great because it opens up new avenues for democracy, but it also opens up new avenues for fraud," Luedtke said.

ecox@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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