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News Opinion Editorial

What was all the fuss about?

So what was all this about a voter referendum or two?

Opponents of a pair of controversial measures backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and approved this year by the Maryland General Assembly — a repeal of the death penalty and landmark gun control legislation — claimed the local populace was outraged by both. So certain was this that many fully expected them to be brought to referendum and defeated by voters in 2014.

The petition drive to bring the death penalty repeal to referendum was even championed by Western Maryland Del. Neil Parrott who was instrumental in bringing three laws to referendum last year through use of a web site that made the signature-gathering process easier. With those kinds of resources, it should have been a snap to put the matter before Maryland's voters.

And gun control? Why, that legislation caused thousands to march on Annapolis, many of whom crammed public hearings on the bill and kept lawmakers working until the wee hours of the morning. That was evidence, many said at the time, that a majority of Maryland was against this ruinous assault on the Second Amendment.

Governor O'Malley and quite a few of his fellow Democrats were not exactly pillars of confidence on their prospects at the polls either. The governor wanted lawmakers to "reform" the rules for voter referendums last session to make it a bit harder to petition newly-passed laws to the ballot box. He said under current law, petitioning for a voter referendum was "a little too easy."

By now, you probably know the rest. As of last Friday, both petition efforts had fallen short. Neither could muster the minimum needed — a mere 18,500 — to meet the first threshold for keeping the effort alive and on track to collecting the required 55,736 signatures overall.

That's right. In the six weeks since the legislature went home, opponents weren't able to muster enough interest in either issue to generate 18,500 signatures of registered voters — or about a summer weekend's worth of tourists at Fort McHenry or half an Orioles home game. Where was the outrage? Where was the voter anger? Where was this "silent majority" of people seeking to oust those who dared approve these laws?

Here's an idea. Most people weren't outraged because, as polls have indicated, most prefer life without parole to the death penalty, and changes to gun laws that make it more difficult for a Sandy Hook massacre to happen here and for criminals to buy guns through "straw purchases" are overwhelmingly popular. And perhaps those who opposed those measures did not hold such strong convictions that they thought signing a petition, let alone volunteering for a petition drive, was worthwhile.

Or maybe even some ardent opponents realized that even if these matters were brought before voters, they were unlikely to be repealed. That may have been the biggest lesson of last year's referendums when measures to allow in-state tuition for some immigrants in the country illegally, permit same-sex couples to marry, and redraw congressional districts all easily survived voter referendums.

On some practical level, too, both petition drives had much going against them. While the death penalty repeal has the organized backing of some religious and civil liberties groups, the pro-death penalty view does not (despite the support of the unlikely alliance of Delegate Parrott, a Republican, and Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a Democrat). And the National Rifle Association's decision not to support the gun control referendum (no doubt NRA officials remembered their unsuccessful attempt to repeal Maryland's "Saturday Night Special" law in 1988) played a role, too.

Nevertheless, the failure makes Democratic trepidations about voter referendums seem all the more embarrassing. How quickly some were willing to deny Maryland's electorate an opportunity to be heard — or at least make it much harder. And what hypocrisy that politicians who claim to be looking out for voters' rights would champion such a cause. Apparently, it's only worthwhile to support improved access to voting when you know it works in your favor politically.

This time the voters have spoken by not speaking. For all the rhetoric that flew around the death penalty repeal and gun control legislation for 90 days in Annapolis, the people living in places like Friendsville and Pocomoke City, Damascus and Churchville, Eldersburg and Parkville, aren't really all that stressed out about it. The decisions stand, and the people have abstained from using their veto authority.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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