In the 96 years that Maryland voters have been allowed to challenge state laws through a voter referendum, just 17 attempts have made it on the ballot, and none have gotten that far in the last 20 years. The reason isn't that the state hasn't passed any controversial legislation in that time, or that the threshold for signatures — a number equivalent to 3 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election — is especially high. The reason, particularly in recent years, is that the legal requirements for what counts as a valid signature have grown increasingly Byzantine, such that a huge percentage of them are typically thrown out.
Successfully navigating the process, even for a local law, has required a well-financed and organized effort, and traditionally, the one group you'd think would have the funding, organization and desire to overturn laws enacted by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly — the state Republican Party — has either sat on the sidelines or failed to get the job done. Even a 2006 effort backed by a sitting Republican governor failed to meet all the requirements.
What's fascinating about the current petition drive to overturn the law granting in-state tuition to some illegal immigrants in Maryland — an effort with which we disagree — is that it's largely the work of one man, a heretofore little-known freshman lawmaker from Washington County, Del. Neil Parrott, who has used technology to do what others have not. He has devised a system using a web form and a state voter database to produce signature sheets, helping him overcome one of the chief problems previous petition drives have grappled with: people who fill out petitions with versions of their names and other information that's slightly different from what's in the state voter records. Fill in your name, phone number, date of birth, ZIP Code and email address, and his website, mdpetitions.com, creates a form for you to sign with all the information appearing exactly as it does in state records.
Now other Republicans are hailing Delegate Parrott's innovation as a game changer, one that will allow them to routinely bring to referendum laws they think are unpopular. That's unlikely. The immigrant tuition petition has certainly been helped by Mr. Parrott's efforts, but the real driver of this effort is the degree of passion stirred up by the issue. There aren't many laws that can match it in terms of the visceral reaction it has inspired in opponents. Furthermore, the idea that Republicans would seek to petition to referendum one or more laws a year relies on a misguided assumption by the state GOP that the bulk of Maryland voters secretly disagree with the Democratic majority on a whole host of issues, yet for some reason keep electing them by a 2-1 margin.
Moreover, a challenge to the website-produced signature sheets by the American Civil Liberties Union should not be discounted. The group argues that given very real cases of fraud in previous petition efforts, the state has justifiably instituted rules that require petition signers to be the ones to provide the information included in state voter records as a mechanism to ensure the signatures are genuine. The state has, for example, rejected the idea of letting people sign sheets pre-printed with the required information, and the ACLU argues that Mr. Parrott's website amounts to the same thing. Moreover, in traditional petitioning, a canvasser vouches for the signatures he or she collects, whereas in this case, each website-produced form is self-verified. The system also provides the option of creating forms for other members of the signer's household, even if their names are never input in the website.
The ACLU's complaint raises some tricky questions — the way the site allows users to generate forms for other household members is particularly troublesome. But we have traditionally disagreed with the notion that making the process of circulating and signing petitions complicated and confusing serves a legitimate purpose; it seems likely to invalidate many legitimate signatures while still allowing plenty of opportunity for fraud. Case in point: During the lead up to last year's vote on zoning for slots at Arundel Mills mall, the courts were concerned with whether middle initials on petition sheets matched voter records, not with allegations that dozens of names were signed with identical handwriting. That said, given the language of the state law and the way similar cases have been decided in the past, it would not be surprising to see the courts side with the ACLU.
No matter what, though, Mr. Parrott shows that even after the Republican nominee was trounced in the gubernatorial race and the party lost state Senate seats in what was nationally a GOP wave election, political competition and debate are alive and well in Maryland. This petition drive may not lead to a flurry of referenda, or even to a successful challenge to the Maryland Dream Act. But it provides a new template for political activism and engagement in Maryland, and that is ultimately good for democracy.