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Referendum petition signers are public information, but when?

In Maryland, residents are entitled to view the names of the people who sign petitions challenging state and local laws, but the matter of when they become public record depends on where you are.

In the contentious drive for a Baltimore County referendum that would challenge zoning changes, developers and community activists who oppose the vote asked the local elections board for copies of the petitions that are going around the county. The opponents want to begin contacting people who signed the petitions because they allege that petition circulators misled citizens, and filed a Public Information Act request for the documents.

Lawyers for developer-backed groups that are promoting the referendum asked the courts to delay the release, saying the elections board should wait until the signatures are verified — as state election officials do. The attorneys alleged that petition "blockers" hired by the other side had harassed and intimidated petition circulators, so releasing the names would have a chilling effect.

Some in Maryland have made similar arguments against publicizing the names of people who sign petitions, saying signers would be targeted. The Sun posted names of petition signers for three state ballot questions this year.

Circuit Judge Kathleen Cox ruled there was nothing to justify the delay of the release, and the county elections board made them made available on Thursday morning.

The county elections board wanted to be "faithful to the PIA," said Andrew G. Bailey, an attorney for the board.

At the state level, "historically, [petitions] are only released after the verification," said Donna Duncan, the state's election management director.

But she pointed out that the state has a much shorter timeline to verify signatures than the county does — 20 days after receiving petitions, compared to 90 days at the county level.

Because the local board is so busy with the presidential election, the county's verification process for the zoning referendum may not wrap until January, Bailey said.

"It's a painstaking process," he said.

—Alison Knezevich

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