Md. ballot language questioned

Reworded amendment appears designed to confuse, some say

August 25, 2006|By Andrew A. Green and Tom Pelton | Andrew A. Green and Tom Pelton,Sun reporters

The Ehrlich administration has revised the General Assembly's suggested wording of a high-profile ballot question restricting state land sales in a way legislative leaders and environmentalists say appears designed to confuse and mislead voters.

Interest groups say they are considering a lawsuit to clarify what voters see when they head to the polls in November.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s office counters that it is the job of his appointed secretary of state, not the legislature, to draft the wording. Administration officials say that the language is precise and appropriate and that the governor wants the ballot question to pass.

At issue is the description of a proposed constitutional amendment giving the General Assembly veto power over the government's ability to sell parkland. The Assembly adopted the amendment in 2005 after an aborted Ehrlich administration proposal to sell protected forest in St. Mary's County to a politically connected contracting company owner. Voters must concur for the constitutional change to become final.

The legislature's suggested description - contained in legislation that passed the Senate last year by a 47-0 vote and the House of Delegates by a 117-17 tally - was one sentence long. It said the state Board of Public Works cannot approve the sale or transfer of land "without the express approval of the General Assembly or of a committee that the General Assembly designates by statute, resolution or rule."

The version that will appear on the ballot reworks that sentence, and then adds four more - including one that says the amendment would "delay" the state's process of disposing of excess land, a procedure which is then described in detail.

122-word difference

In all, the legislature's version is 52 words. The administration's is 174 words.

Dawn Stoltzfus, spokeswoman for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said her group is considering legal action to make sure the language on the fall ballot in November is clearer and communicates what the General Assembly intended. She said she's concerned that the wording was changed because of political influence.

By law, the ballot descriptions are approved by Secretary of State Mary D. Kane, an Ehrlich appointee whose husband heads the Maryland Republican Party.

"The new language is confusing and obtuse. It's really wonky. The original language from the legislature is really clear," Stoltzfus said. "Our worry is that this [new language] is going to confuse voters, and that it might even be a deliberate attempt to confuse voters."

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who was the measure's chief sponsor, concurred.

"They're trying to just slip a knife in its back," Frosh said. "Presented neutrally, I think it would attract overwhelming support, but they've kind of turned it upside-down, and I think the reason for it is they would prefer it die a not-so-quiet death."

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell called the complaints "preposterous."

"The governor supports the amendment 100 percent and hopes it passes," Fawell said.

Democrats are also crying foul about preliminary language for a referendum on certain early voting provisions, saying it misleads voters about the cost of the program.

"I'm sure there are going to be lawsuits about this," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "The secretary of state is supposed to be representative of all the people, not [be] a political shill for the Republican Party."

Litigation would add to the potential for the judiciary to influence the November election.

The Court of Appeals is already due to rule on the issues of early voting and the legislature's attempt to fire the Public Service Commission, both of which pit Ehrlich, the incumbent Republican, against his Democratic opponent and Democrats in the General Assembly.

Kane, the secretary of state, said the language for the land sale amendment is designed to be as simple, succinct and fair as possible, not to influence the outcome of the question.

Kane said that the wording expands on what the legislature approved but that she added a section explaining the current law - a feature she says will help voters make an informed decision.

"We followed the format of previous administrations," she said. "We didn't just pull this out of our hat."

While the environmental question language is set, the wording for the early voting question has not been finalized and will be changed before it appears on the ballot, she said.

This year, the Assembly passed a bill giving specifics for the implementation of a new system to allow voters to cast ballots several days before the election, a move Democrats say would increase participation but which Republicans - led by Ehrlich - say is an invitation to fraud.

An Ehrlich-backed petition drive succeeded in putting a question on the ballot on the early voting implementation law but failed another attempt for a referendum on early voting itself.

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