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Referendum bill would broaden access to the polls

As an elected official, I've introduced legislation this session titled the Referendum Integrity Act, which seeks to address shortfalls in Maryland's referendum system while also making the process of gathering signatures in Maryland more transparent and fair.

Sun columnist Marta Mossburg and others have attacked the legislation as somehow disenfranchising voters ("Hypocrisy on voter access," Feb. 27). But a simple reading of the bill would reveal that it does nothing of the sort.

In fact, I believe it empowers participation in the process and that it would not have stopped critical issues such as Marriage Equality Act and the DREAM Act from making it onto the ballot last fall.

There isn't space here to walk through all the provisions of the bill, but I want to address some of the most important.

Just as Marylanders deserve to know who contributes to the campaigns of elected officials, Marylanders deserve to know where the money for petition campaigns comes from. Petition sponsors and their donors should be just as transparent as other political campaigns in the state, and my legislation requires them to file a campaign finance entity and abide by the same rules as everyone else.

The bill also includes a number of protections for signers, including the plainly obvious idea that if information on signers can be publicly released (which is allowed under current law), then signers should be made aware of that. It isn't fair to signers who are concerned about their information being released publicly for them to be left utterly unaware that such a thing may happen.

Finally, the bill includes some common sense proposals for ensuring that signatures are accurate. It creates free and accessible online training for petition circulators so they are aware of the laws regarding the petition process and know exactly what their legal responsibilities are.

It also bans so-called "bounty payments," in which circulators are paid per signature, something that's already illegal in Maryland for voter registration drives. The reason for this is simple: Creating a financial incentive for more signatures rather than an incentive for legal signatures is a clear invitation to fraud.

Ms. Mossburg and others seem to think that this is a partisan effort to make the process of petitioning laws to referendum harder. It is not. The referendum process provides equal benefits to liberals and conservatives.

I was a strong supporter of the efforts of the Montgomery County Fraternal Order of Police to petition a local law that undermined collective bargaining rights, and there are plenty of elected officials from both parties who have supported referendums on a variety of other issues.

But the previous generation of progressives who secured the right to referendum in our state constitution did so in 1914. In the century since then our commitment to fairness and transparency in election law has strengthened, and loopholes in the law that undermine the integrity of the process have become clear.

I believe that, after 100 years, it's time we look at the law again, and ensure that the referendum process is fair, transparent, free of fraud and updated for the modern age.

Eric G. Luedtke, Annapolis

The writer, a Democrat, represents Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates.

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