The Howard County Board of Elections has verified that there are enough signatures on a petition to put a repeal of Howard County’s new sanctuary county law on the ballot as a referendum for the November 2022 election, according to county elections Director Guy Mickley.
Citizens For A Strong And Safe Howard County (In Opposition of CB 63-2020) has been lobbying to put the repeal of the sanctuary law on the ballot since at least its passage in December. The citizens group calls the law “bad public policy” and says it offers undocumented immigrants a false sense of security, threatens public safety in Howard and restricts county police from cooperating with federal law enforcement personnel, according to its website.
“We are elated and extremely thrilled and excited and amazed at the turnout,” Lisa Kim, the group’s chair, said in an interview. “The amount of funding we were able to pull together, with the majority of it coming from Howard County, is unprecedented.”
The Liberty Act, introduced by County Council Vice Chair Opel Jones in the fall, prohibits county agencies from cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The law prevents county employees from questioning or reporting the immigration status of anyone using county services, visiting county buildings or in county public schools.
The legislation passed in a 4-1 vote in December, with County Council member David Yungmann voting in opposition. County Executive Calvin Ball signed the legislation into law on Dec. 10.
The signatures were approved by the Board of Elections on March 19, the same day the Howard County Detention Center sent written notice of its intent to terminate its contract with ICE that allowed immigration detainees to be housed at the center, at the direction of Ball.
“We’re hopeful that our Howard County residents who value diversity, equality and inclusion will continue to support the Liberty Act,” Ball said in a statement about the referendum. “This legislation is important to protect many of our residents who live in constant fear of being detained and deported as they work hard to support their families and children.”
On Feb. 5, the citizens group turned in 6,885 petition signatures to get the sanctuary law repeal on the ballot. Referendum petitions have to be filed with the county Board of Elections within 60 days of the law being enacted, according to the Howard County Charter, which was Feb. 8 for the Liberty Act.
The number of signatures the group had to collect was 5% of voter turnout in Howard in the 2018 election, which totaled 7,170. Since the group had at least half but less than the full number of signatures required, both the time of the law to take effect and the time to collect the rest of the signatures was extended by 30 days.
The group then had until March 10 to collect the remaining signatures, and they collected 11,072 in total, according to Kim.
The Board of Elections then had 21 days by state law to verify the petition signatures, according to Mickley. He said they ultimately verified 9,173 signatures, some 2,000 more than needed to put the referendum on the ballot.
Mickley said the process now moves to the county’s Office of Law, which will come up with the language for the referendum. That process will take place closer to the 2022 general election.
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“This is a testament to how strongly people feel against us being a sanctuary county,” Kim said.
Kim said the group’s next steps are investing in education about the referendum and raising money to fund commercials, robocalls and radio advertisements.
Jones, who introduced the original legislation, said there will be an educational campaign about the new law at some point in the future as well.
“All of this may be a moot conversation, depending on what happens at the state,” Jones said. “If it [comes] to that point, then an education campaign will be forthcoming.”
The General Assembly is considering legislation this session that would make Maryland a “sanctuary state.” The bill, cross-filed in the Senate and House of Delegates, would prevent local or state police from asking someone about their immigration status in Maryland and prohibit police from reporting interactions with undocumented immigrants to federal immigration authorities.
For the time being, the citizens group is pausing to see what happens at the state level and waiting to see if a similar referendum question is introduced statewide, thereby nullifying the county referendum.
“The constituents came out with a strong and clear voice, with the signatures and the funding,” Kim said. “It’s very clear that people feel strongly about Howard County not becoming a sanctuary county.”