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A referendum on referendums?

Last week was a very good one for Maryland's governor. He helped President Barack Obama win another term, increased the number of Democrats representing his state in Congress while also getting all his party's incumbents re-elected and went 7-for-7 on ballot questions, including the history-making same-sex marriage law. So perhaps he was feeling his oats.

At least that would explain why Gov. Martin O'Malley so rashly told reporters — practically before the unplugged voting machines had gone cold — that he'd like the General Assembly to consider making it more difficult for a Maryland law to be petitioned to referendum. "It's probably been made a little too easy," he said. And others in the legislature are reportedly considering making changes to do that very thing.

To which we would say: Let's not discourage participatory democracy quite so quickly. There might actually be something to it.

Clearly, what concerns Mr. O'Malley and others are the efforts of Del. Neil Parrott, the Washington County Republican who brought referendums to the Internet age. Instead of relying entirely on the manpower-intensive process of collecting signatures on the street, he set up a website that made the signature collection process more convenient and accurate.

Maryland already sets a fairly high standard for voter petitions. The state does not, for instance, allow for those hastily arrived at, and often contradictory, voter-initiated laws that have bedeviled California for a generation. Maryland only allows referendums to overturn laws enacted by the General Assembly, and it doesn't allow taxes or other budget-related matters to be brought to referendum at all. It takes tens of thousands of signatures for a statewide referendum (with a certain amount of geographic balance, too). Meanwhile, the Court of Appeals has been pretty persnickety about how signatures had to comply precisely with voter registration rolls (a person registered as John R. Smith can't sign a petition John Smith, for instance), all of which is why there were so few referendums in the past.

This year, only three of the seven questions on the ballot were brought by petition. And one can argue that two of the matters — same-sex marriage and the Dream Act — were controversial enough that they'd likely have been petitioned successfully without Internet assistance. That leaves just one, congressional redistricting, that was clearly helped by Mr. Parrott's MDPetitions.com. Once it was put on the ballot, however, it was overwhelmingly endorsed by voters, so it's presence ultimately had no effect whatsoever.

That doesn't sound like much of a crisis to us. Perhaps Mr. Parrott and his fellow Republicans plan to use the petition process simply to throw a wrench into the gears of state government, delaying laws from taking effect for months if not years at a time whenever possible. As we've noted before, that doesn't seem like much of a strategy for building up the beleaguered Republican Party in Maryland that ought to be focused on finding and supporting viable candidates for statewide office. And in any case, that approach probably seems a lot less attractive after going 0-3.

We don't blame supporters of the Dream Act and same-sex marriage for lamenting the inconvenience of a referendum. After working so hard for so long to win General Assembly approval, they had to mount expensive campaigns to keep the laws on the books. But not to be too Pollyannaish about this, what they ended up with — laws that everyone now knows have the support of a majority of voters — actually benefits their causes. Democrats emerged stronger, too. The argument that they are "out of touch" with the electorate doesn't hold much water when voters signed off on their work product (including a congressional redistricting map so gerrymandered into blobs and wisps that it might have better served as a Rorschach test).

We'd rather have Mr. O'Malley and others, Democrat or Republican, looking for ways to encourage public participation in government decisions rather than looking into ways to discourage it. Obviously, a balance must be struck over how difficult it is to petition a new law to ballot. Too easy and people would do it on everything just to be contrarian; too hard and a state already dominated by one party would truly be without a viable option to express dissent. What Maryland has now seems entirely reasonable and perhaps improved by Mr. Parrott's efforts. Legislators are welcome to explore the subject when they reconvene in January, but they should be reluctant to deny voters this periodic chance to make their voices heard.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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