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Government by referendum?

When opponents of Maryland's law granting in-state tuition to some illegal immigrants succeeded in petitioning the measure to referendum — a power long granted to the people under the state's constitution but one that was rarely used — Republicans gleefully promised that a new era was dawning. Convinced that the Democratic governor and General Assembly were routinely passing laws that were out of step with the views of most Marylanders, they pledged to make referenda a regular part of state governance. A year later, opponents of gay marriage turned in an avalanche of signatures. But it will be the fate of a lower-profile effort, a drive to throw out the state's congressional district maps, that will determine whether Republicans make good on their promise.

The success of the Dream Act petitioners was something of a surprise. To put an act of the General Assembly on the ballot, the Maryland constitution requires opponents to gather a number of signatures equivalent to 3 percent of the total votes cast for governor in the last election. Currently, that's 55,736. In a state of nearly 6 million people, that doesn't seem like such a high hurdle, but historically, it has been. Just 18 laws have been petitioned to referendum, the last of them an abortion law from the early 1990s. The constitution provides little time for opponents of a law to put together the kind of state-wide organization necessary to collect signatures. And in cases where they have managed to do so, the courts have erected further hurdles. Typically, a large percentage of signatures has been rejected because of a variety of technical rule violations.

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The rules are voluminous and not particularly intuitive. Names on the petition must exactly match those on the voter rolls. Petitions in which the summary of the law in question is stapled to the signature sheet rather than printed on the back are thrown out. If a signer forgets to include his birth date or gets it wrong, that's OK; if he forgets to include the date when he's signing the petition or gets it wrong, that's not OK. Petition canvassers don't have to include their home ZIP code in the address section, but if they leave out the area code with their phone number on a sheet of signatures, it must be thrown out.

Opponents overcame those obstacles in the Dream Act petition through extensive use of the Internet and social media to spread the word, and through a website created by Republican Del. Neil Parrott, which helps users avoid the technical errors that have tripped up previous petitions. Applying those technological innovations to a law that speaks to one of the biggest hot-button issues of the day resulted in the board of elections certifying nearly twice the required number of signatures for that petition.

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The apparent success of this year's effort to petition Maryland's gay marriage law to referendum, then, comes as no surprise. It had all the advantages of the Dream Act petition, plus the organizational muscle of religious groups including the Catholic Church. The state board hasn't issued a formal certification for the petition, but as of June 15, it had validated more than 109,000 signatures.

The fate of the congressional map petition drive, however, is unclear. Map opponents submitted about 65,000 signatures, and so far, the board has validated about 46,000 of them with 13,000 left to check. Either way, it's likely to be close.

The Dream Act and gay marriage are unusual issues in that they were both the product of years of hard-fought debates in Annapolis, passed narrowly, evenly divide state voters and place Maryland at the center of national political battles. The redistricting map is routine business — but also a case in which the interests of the politicians who drew the convoluted maps and the people who must live with them are at odds. If the voters reject gay marriage or the Dream Act, it would come as a disappointment but not a shock to many in Maryland's political establishment. Voting down the Congressional map, though, would be a rebuke they could not easily ignore. Likewise, a victory for petitioners on gay marriage of the Dream Act would not signal open season on the General Assembly; issues like those just don't come around every day. But a failure to overturn the Congressional maps would likely signal that the recent flurry of petitioning in Maryland is a fad that will pass.

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