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Md. petition reform: a tempest in a teapot

ElectionsLaws and LegislationSame-Sex MarriageIllegal ImmigrantsRepublican Party

Twenty years after the last time Maryland voters weighed in on a law passed by the General Assembly, they got the chance to do it three times in 2012, with referendums on in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants, same-sex marriage and a gerrymandered congressional district map designed to deliver one more seat to the Democrats. The powers that be in Annapolis are not thrilled — Gov. Martin O'Malley proclaimed it "a little too easy" to put a law on the ballot — and now several of them have introduced legislation to make the task harder. Though Maryland's recent experiences with petitions have exposed some flaws with the process, lawmakers should think twice before declaring referendums to be a dangerous trend that needs to be curtailed.

The Washington Post's John Wagner reported this week on several of the bills that have been proposed, the most drastic of which is an effort to increase the threshold for placing a law on the ballot from a number of signatures equivalent to 3 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election to 5 percent of all registered voters in the state. That effectively triples the requirement and sets a bar so high that none of the recent petition efforts — not even the gay marriage petition, which had the organized backing of institutions like the Catholic Church — would have made it on the ballot.

The belief that the process has become too easy stems from the rise of mdpetitions.com, an organization created by Republican Del. Neil C. Parrott of Washington County. It uses a web application to link prospective signers with the state's voter registration database and automatically fills out a petition form with their information. That new convenience largely erases an old roadblock that the Court of Appeals had thrown in the way of petitioners: the requirement that a signature precisely match the information on the state's voter rolls. Because people often don't remember exactly how they filled out their voter registration forms, that requirement has been used over the years to invalidate thousands of signatures and, until this year, led to a generation-long gap between referendums. Republicans have said they would like to use the process to petition some acts of the Democrat-dominated General Assembly to referendum every year.

What happened at the ballot box in November — all three laws were ratified by the voters — raises the question of what, exactly, Democrats are so worried about. The whole process largely served to prove that Republican assurances that they had the will of the people on their side were flat wrong.

But it did have one other effect that is a cause for legitimate concern. Typically, when a law is petitioned to referendum, its effect is put on hold until it can be voted on. In the case of the Dream Act, that meant a delay of a year and a half. Because of the election calendar, the same would be true if Republicans petitioned to referendum any gun control measures the General Assembly adopts this year. There is some injustice in the notion that a dedicated but small band of voters can put on hold a law passed by the democratically elected representatives of the people. Given the petitioners' stinging defeats at the ballot box last year, it's unclear how many people will want to put in the effort necessary to bring laws to the ballot — and even with the advent of mdpetitions.com, the process still requires tremendous legwork. But a reform that allows laws to go into effect during the petition process — except in cases like the gay marriage law, in which legislators explicitly stayed its effect until after the following election — would be sensible.

So would laws to take aim at petition fraud. When opponents of Arundel Live petitioned to referendum the Anne Arundel County Council's decision to grant proper zoning for the casino, the developers of the project alleged widespread fraud in the signature gathering process. Whether those claims were legitimate we will never know, because the courts said elections officials had no authority to check whether, for example, an entire sheet of signatures was in the same handwriting. More recent petition efforts to overturn zoning decisions in Baltimore County have led to complaints that paid petition circulators were misleading voters about what they were signing. And the rules for what will or will not invalidate a signature on a petition remain byzantine; the state's guidelines about the matter run to 45 items and get into details like whether it is acceptable for circulators to omit the ZIP Code from their addresses (yes) or the area code from their phone numbers (no). Those rules need to be clarified and simplified.

In the end, though, the concern about the petition process may be overblown. Republicans petitioned so many acts to referendum in 2012 because, suddenly, they could. But to keep doing so and losing at the ballot box would only cement the notion that they are out of touch with Maryland voters.

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