After listening to critics on both sides of the issue, Maryland's attorney general has rewritten the politically sensitive abortion question set for the November ballot and has sent the second draft back to interested groups for another look.
At issue is the one-paragraph description of a new abortion law that Marylanders will see when they enter the voting booth Nov. 3. Groups on both sides of the issue are on the lookout for any word, any clause that might prompt a voter to pull the opposition's lever.
The new version is a little longer -- closer to 100 words than the 60 in the first draft. And because it has the luxury of more words, it's "less cryptic" than the first version, said Jack Schwartz, a chief counsel in the attorney general's office.
The new draft also rearranges several clauses that describe the new abortion-rights law -- passed in 1991 and petitioned to referendum by abortion opponents.
But even minor revisions are eyed skeptically by groups involved in the fight over the new law, which would keep most abortions in Maryland legal even if the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn the 1973 ruling that guaranteed abortion rights.
Early reviews on the second draft were mixed: Anti-abortion activistsnoted "some improvement"; abortion-rights backers said the new language clouded the meaning of the statute.
The first draft, released three weeks ago, was packed into 60 words, the limit advised by the State Administrative Board of Election Laws. Sixty words, the elections board said, fit into one column on the voting machine.
But anti-abortion groups noted that ballot questions in recent years have exceeded 60 words. "We thought that comment from pro-life groups was a valid one," Mr. Schwartz said. The elections board agreed to allow up to 100 words.
"If you have more words, you can say a little more and not be so cryptic," Mr. Schwartz said. "We can elaborate a little bit on the parental notification [clause]. We can add more detail here and there."
Also in response to comments from anti-abortion groups, the clauses in the second draft have been rearranged to follow the order in which they appear in the bill, Mr. Schwartz said.
Stacie Spector, campaign manager of Maryland for Choice, didn't embrace the new wording yesterday.
"Our feeling is the essence of the law is buried in the language," she said. "The most important concern of ours is that the voters be clear on how to vote on Nov. 3. The essence of [the new law] is keeping the government out of the woman's most private decision. We need the language to be very clear."
But Frederica Mathewes-Green, spokeswoman for the Vote Know Coalition, was more enthusiastic.
"I would say there is some improvement. We think this is helpful in making things clearer, considering the complexity of the law. And we think it is logical to take things in the order in which they appear."
She said she still has "some quibbles" with some "politically charged language" left in the draft.
But she added, "I think it was a wonderful idea for us to be invited to send comments. We do appreciate that and feel we're on our way to something that will be equitable to both sides."
Final wording was supposed to be submitted to the secretary of state, for inclusion on the ballot, by June 30. But Mr. Schwartz said the attorney general will push that schedule back a few days, accepting comments on the second draft until July 2.
Mr. Schwartz said the attorney general's office received 70 or 75 comments on the first draft -- all but about 10 from anti-abortion groups.
Mr. Schwartz said he expects final wording to be sent to the secretary of state the first week of July. That, he said, would allow time foranyone who still objects to the language to take the state to court before Aug. 17, when the final language must be on the ballot.