Tougher petition rules

State's election board votes unanimously to comply with Court of Appeals ruling, says it has no choice

March 27, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,

Maryland's election board voted unanimously Thursday to impose stricter rules on referendum petition drives, based on a Court of Appeals ruling that critics say will make it much harder for citizens to take an issue to the voters.

The board voted 4-0 with one member absent. Under the new rules, people signing petitions must use either their full name, including middle initials, or sign their name exactly as it appears on election board voting rolls. In addition, a printed name required on a petition must exactly match the accompanying signature.

"Of course we have to comply with decisions of the courts whether we like it or not," board Chairman Robert L. Walker said. "You do have another remedy, which is legislation."

Before the vote, Marc Norman, leader of a Howard County petition drive, urged the board to vote against the rules, arguing that they would make referendum campaigns harder.

"Everything about the way things are done now is different from the way the state has operated for 30 years, and we're stuck in the middle," he said.

For the past three decades, Maryland election officials have used a standard of "reasonable certainty" in evaluating petition signatures, said Assistant Attorney General Sandy Brantley, who advises the election board.

An emergency General Assembly bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat who represents Howard and Baltimore counties, would reverse the effect of the court decision and the board vote, though the measure's fate this late in the 90-day session remains uncertain.

The session ends April 13.

The bill would be retroactive to Dec. 1, 2008, before the high court's Dec. 19 ruling in a Montgomery County referendum case.

Kasemeyer's bill came last week after a Howard County election board ruling March 12 invalidated a petition drive aimed at putting a County Council bill to allow a larger grocery store at Turf Valley on next year's ballot.

The 809-acre golf and hotel resort in western Ellicott City is undergoing a major redevelopment, including plans for a village center-style commercial area.

Critics of the plan gathered nearly double the 5,000 signatures required by Howard law to put the council bill before the voters.

But after initially deciding that most signatures in the first batch of 2,600 submitted were valid, the county election board reversed that determination. Board attorney Gerald M. Richman told them that the Dec. 19 high court opinion is the law, and the board invalidated 85 percent of the signatures.

Norman, a Turf Valley resident, said challenges have been filed in federal court and state Circuit Court to overturn the Howard board's ruling.

The old rules were enough to prevent fraud, and changing the rules after the names were submitted is unfair, Norman argued.

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