Double dose of confusion on the ballot 2 duplications in first 4 questions

September 30, 1992|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

Maryland's election administrator thinks it's "dumb," and others say it's confusing, but Maryland's November election ballot will contain two sets of duplicate amendments to the state constitution.

That's right. Question 1 is exactly the same as Question 2, and Question 3 is exactly the same as Question 4. The questions deal with civil jury trials.

"I've never seen this before in 35 years," said Gene Raynor, the state election administrator. "Believe me, I don't like it either. It clutters the ballot. It's dumb. I think good, common sense should prevail, at times," he added.

But election authorities say it's the General Assembly's fault.

The Maryland legislature often enacts both Senate and House versions of the same bill. That's what happened with the two amendments.

Normally, the governor signs one bill into law and vetoes the duplicate. But Gov. William Donald Schaefer's hands were tied this time because these bills were constitutional amendments, which he can't veto.

Only the legislature itself could have rescinded one of the duplicate bills, according to an opinion from Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth L. Nilson.

But John Stierhoff, counsel to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. D-Prince George's, said that legislators didn't believe last spring that both bills would have to appear on the ballot.

"We didn't have the benefit of Ms. Nilson's opinion," he said yesterday. He said the Senate was intent on making sure that at least its own version of the amendment was enacted in the confusion over taxes and the budget that marked the tortured end of the 1992 General Assembly session.

Election officials spotted the problem of duplication and asked the attorney general about it.

Writing in mid-July to a perplexed Secretary of State Winfield M. Kelly Jr., Ms. Nilson said, "The Maryland constitution does not permit the State Election Board to choose to present to the electorate one proposed constitutional amendment and to refuse present another, even when both bills propose an identical amendment."

The two questions would make changes in civil court proceedings. One would allow some civil trials with only six jurors instead of 12. The other would provide civil jury trials only if the amount of money in dispute is at least $5,000, as opposed to the current $500 threshold.

While a voter could conceivably vote "yes" on one version and "no" on the other, only one of the duplicates needs approval for the constitutional amendment to go into effect, officials said.

For example, if voters approve Question 1 but defeat Question 2, the change in civil jury size would still become part of the constitution. Only if both duplicates are defeated would the amendment fail.

The state board of elections will refer to the duplicate questions in the normal full-page election notification ads that will appear in area newspapers shortly before the election. The ads will mention, for example, that Question 2 "is exactly duplicate of Question 1," Mr. Raynor said, but no other explanation will be offered.

Only one version of the other November ballot questions will appear. They include a referendum on the state's abortion law, a constitutional amendment making technical changes for counties adopting home rule charters and a variety of local bond issues.

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