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Petition for Anne Arundel campaign finance ballot question fails after elections board rejects 5,000 signatures

A petition to add a question to the November ballot about creating a public campaign finance option for candidates in Anne Arundel County failed to get enough verified signatures, Board of Elections Director David Garreis said Wednesday.

Late last month, Fair Elections Maryland Coalition, a group of state and local voter organizations, delivered the petition to the elections board, boasting nearly 11,000 signatures. But after two weeks of signature verification, the board rejected 5,512 signatures, more than half of the 10,743 submitted, mostly because the signees were not registered to vote, Garreis said.

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“It’s possible many people were approached to sign the petition and instead of saying no to someone, opted to sign with made-up information,” Garreis said. “We always recommend at the outset to petition sponsors to get more than the required number of signatures.”

If the petition had gotten the requisite 10,000 signatures, a proposed charter amendment would have been added to the November ballot allowing Anne Arundel County residents to vote on the creation of a public campaign finance system that helps county executive and County Council candidates who are not able to fund a campaign independently or through contributions alone, supplement their donations with county dollars. The tradeoff is they cannot take large donations or donations from major corporations.

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The coalition, composed of the League of Women Voters of Anne Arundel County, Common Cause Maryland, Maryland PIRG and Progressive Maryland, began collecting signatures for the petition earlier this year after the County Council voted in February against putting a public campaign finance option on the ballot.

The council’s four Democratic members supported the resolution; the three Republicans were opposed. It needed a five-vote supermajority to pass.

“It is very disappointing that the effort didn’t pass this time around, but I think we can see there is support for this within the county,” said Morgan Drayton, Common Cause Maryland policy and engagement manager. “There are more than 5,000 people who do want the opportunity to at least be able to vote on this.”

During the February meeting, Peter Baron, director of government relations for County Executive Steuart Pittman, explained how critical the county executive believed this new system would be.

Council Republicans Nathan Volke, Jessica Haire and Amanda Fiedler raised concerns about supporting a bill without a price tag. Volke questioned why the system was needed when some council members won elections against better-funded opponents. Once it failed, Pittman, who sponsored the original resolution, reached out to the coalition to generate support for the initiative.

“It’s unfortunate that some of these council members are not comfortable letting the voters make this decision,” Pittman said Thursday. “I fundamentally believe that big money in politics at every level effects the outcome of decisions. I see it all the time. I see it especially during election season when those who donate get a lot of face time with the elected officials and those who don’t are not heard.”

Such a system would broaden the county’s candidate pool, Pittman said.

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“When you have people of different backgrounds that think outside the box, they’re more creative and they represent parts of our community that need to be heard,” he said.

Public campaign finance is not a new concept for Maryland. Montgomery, Howard, Baltimore and Prince George’s counties already have approved public campaign finance systems. It’s also been used at the state level including by Gov. Larry Hogan in 2014.

Maryland Board of Elections Candidacy and Campaign Finance Director Jared DeMarinis said in February that based on data from other counties — Montgomery County used around $6 million and Howard County spent about $1 million — he expected the program would cost Anne Arundel less than $6 million.

This is the coalition’s first petition but it likely won’t be their last, Drayton said. Fundraising can be difficult for new candidates, especially those without connections or name recognition, she said.

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“We’ve seen a lot of special interest money flooding these local races and making it more and more expensive for your average, everyday person to run,” Drayton said. “We’ve seen a lot of specifically developer money.”

Pittman said, if reelected, he hopes to return the resolution to the County Council, which will be composed of new members after the election, and request it pass the resolution again.

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While public campaign finance will not be on the November ballot, eight other questions will be. Most were recommendations from the Charter Revision Commission, a group that convenes once a decade to propose changes to the county charter.

The November ballot will feature a question about whether County Council term limits should increase from a maximum of two four-year terms to three. Other questions are more technical, relating to altering the language of the county’s charter, or governing documents, to be more inclusive.

One question came from a resolution introduced by County Council member Andrew Pruski, a Gambrills Democrat, about whether to create a Veterans Affairs Commission for the county. All seven council members supported the ballot initiative.

County residents must be registered to vote by Oct. 18 for the Nov. 8 general election that will decide the state’s next governor, comptroller, attorney general, delegates, senators, federal representatives and county representatives.


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