After a historic season for ballot referendums in Maryland, some lawmakers are proposing changes that could add hurdles to the process.
“This bill is not intended to make it harder to petition something to the ballot,” said Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Dist. 14) of Burtonsville, who introduced a bill that makes several changes to the law governing petitions. “It’s intended to ensure the process is fair and transparent and free of fraud.”
The bill, among other provisions, would require groups organizing a petition drive to file campaign finance reports with the Maryland Board of Elections — currently, groups file only after their petition is accepted by the board — and protect signers from having their information used commercially or allowing the Board of Elections to change their voter registration if an individual accidentally uses an incorrect address.
Under the bill, a statement notifying signers that their information will be publicly available also must be added to petitions.
The 2012 general election ballot had three questions that were petitioned to referendum: same-sex marriage, the Dream Act, and the redrawn congressional district map. All three passed, cementing victories for Democrats.
It was the first time in 20 years that a bill had been petitioned successfully to the ballot, said Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Dist. 2B) of Hagerstown, who led the petition drives with his website MdPetitions.com.
“To get any bill to a referendum is an excruciatingly difficult process,” Parrott said. Many things have to be exactly right, and even when the Maryland State Board of Elections approves the signatures, a challenge in court is all but certain, he said. “The bar is set so high.”
The Maryland Court of Appeals approved the use of Parrott’s online petitions in October, ruling that the individual signing the petition also could act as witness for his or her own signature, because the current law does not make a distinction between the person circulating the petition and the petition signer.
Luedtke’s bill would clarify that the witness to the signature cannot be the same person signing the petition.
“Look, I can’t act as witness on my own will, I have to have someone else do it,” Luedtke said. “The idea that you can witness your own signature is, to me, nonsensical.”
Parrott said efforts to change the rules are generally aimed at making it more difficult to successfully petition a bill to the ballot.
“The effort to shut down the people of Maryland from having any voice in Annapolis is blatantly undemocratic and arrogant,” Parrott said, citing Gov. Martin O’Malley’s statements following the election suggesting that the Internet had made it too easy to petition bills to the ballot.
“That’s an unbelievably arrogant attitude that I’m astounded he even said,” Parrott said.
Keeping the status quo on the referendum process is crucial in Maryland, Parrott said, because it ensures a check on the government.
“Especially in Maryland, where you have a one-party control, it allows the people of Maryland, on both sides of the aisle, who may not agree with the leadership at the time, to say, ‘Hold on to that bill, we’d all like a chance to vote on it.”
Some, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach, predict that if the governor’s death penalty repeal bill passes, as is expected, it probably will be petitioned. Any bills that pass during this session to change the petition process likely would affect an effort to bring that bill to referendum.