In the last two presidential election years, Maryland voters brought to referendum legislation banning easily concealed handguns and protecting abortion rights.
Currently, Howard County development-control activists are mounting a petition drive for a referendum that would allow future comprehensive rezoning plans and General Plans for land use to be put to a direct vote of the people.
In Columbia, several residents said they would have taken to referendum a controversial Columbia Association decision last year to build a $5.2 million golf course -- if only they had had that option.
Since last summer, the Columbia Council, the nonprofit association's board of directors, has attempted to draft a referendum provision to give residents a greater voice in Columbia's affairs, such as decisions on major capital projects or changes in recreational facility rates or in the unincorporated city's annual property lien rate.
The association should provide an opportunity for referendum "for the same reason that self-governing bodies throughout our country provide this as a basic right," says Councilwoman Norma Rose of Wilde Lake village, who has spearheaded the effort.
"Elected officials are not infallible," she said.
The board expects to vote on a resolution to allow a nonbinding, or advisory, referendum -- a measure of public opinion on any matter under the council's authority -- at its 8 p.m. meeting Thursday at the Columbia Association Building.
The council sets the budget and policy for CA, which charges Columbia property owners an annual fee to manage the unincorporated city's recreational facilities, community programs and open spaces.
The council backed off initial considerations to implement a binding referendum, which would give voters ultimate authority over some council decisions, because of legal obstacles in CA's charter and bylaws. A proposal for a binding referendum would probably have been defeated, say supporters.
The current resolution for nonbinding referendums -- which would require 2,500 validated petition signatures from Columbia residents for a question to be placed on annual village board ballots -- has encountered council opposition. A close vote is predicted.
Councilman David Berson of River Hill village, who supports referendums, says the proposal aims to "allow residents to tell us about something when they feel very strongly, but allow the board to run CA. You can't run any government or corporation by referendum."
But several council members say that referendums aren't necessary because residents may express their opinions to village boards and the council. Other say that conflicts with Columbia's unique voting rules and procedural difficulties, such as validating petition signatures, render the proposal too onerous.
"A referendum is redundant," says Councilwoman Suzanne Waller of Town Center. "We have 100 people working on village boards. That's why they're there -- to listen to residents' needs and be responsive."
Ms. Rose says she's "dumbfounded that people are so `f threatened" by the "modest proposal." She charges that council and village board members who oppose it "take a surprisingly dim view of the Columbia electorate."
"I believe that Columbia residents can handle controversial issues in a responsible way if given this mechanism," she says.
Council Chairwoman Karen Kuecker of Owen Brown village says referendums would create a "disparity" in most villages, which restrict voting to one vote per household, or property lot, for village board and Columbia Council elections. Under the referendum proposal, anyone age 18 or older could vote.
"It would be one thing if there was a logical, easy way to change village elections, but there's not," she says. "To continue to hit people over the head and tell them [the current voting system ] is not right but there's no means to change it is not logical."
But Mr. Berson says logistical problems can be overcome.
"It's important for residents to have an additional outlet to voice feelings, particularly one that is a Columbia-wide expression of feeling" rather than limited by village, he says.
Ms. Kuecker says she plans to offer a compromise proposal that would establish another way for residents to register opinions without voting.
Several council members have suggested that referendums could be "divisive" and expressed concern that a small number of concerned residents could register disproportionate influence.
But Ms. Rose dismisses those concerns as superfluous.
"The apathy which currently plagues our elections is a far greater threat to Columbia's civic well-being than a referendum could ever be," she says.