The failure of those who oppose Maryland's new speed camera law to collect enough signatures to bring the matter before voters may be a victory for traffic safety, but it also raises troubling questions about the challenge of taking any new law to referendum.
Speed camera opponents had until Sunday night to collect more than one-third of the necessary 53,000 signatures to put the matter on the ballot next year, but they came up an estimated 1,600 short. And that's assuming the state would have considered the signatures valid; new requirements on what constitutes a legal signature might have caused many of those collected in recent weeks to be disqualified anyway.
It is this relatively new petitioning standard - made possible by a Court of Appeals ruling last year in an unrelated case - that voters should find most alarming. It forces petitioners to not merely collect a set number of signatures but to ensure that each person signs as his or her name appears on voter registration records. Thus, someone registered as Jonathan David Doe can't sign as John Doe or even Jonathan Doe but only as Jonathan David Doe or Jonathan D. Doe to be counted.
Such an obligation makes a difficult task nearly impossible - at least for loosely organized fledgling organizations such as Maryland for Responsible Enforcement, the Bethesda-based group that was spearheading the speed camera petition. One suspects that larger, better financed organizations such as the National Rifle Association would have had more success had a gun control measure been involved, but most laws don't generate such well-organized opposition.
We supported the speed camera law. In our judgment, it's not unreasonable to expect motorists to stay within 12 mph of the speed limit in a school zone. And we are no fans of ballot initiatives or propositions - laws that are written and considered by voters alone. Such an approach bypasses the safeguards of the legislative process and instead invites the kind of chaos that has put California on the verge of financial ruin.
But the right to petition to referendum laws passed by the Maryland General Assembly has been on the books for more than 90 years and is a vital check and balance to government, particularly in a state where one political party so dominates the executive and legislative branches.
Maryland lawmakers need to not only reverse this too-stringent policy on voter signatures but also explore other ways to make petition drives more accessible to the masses in the age of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Surely, a step toward more democratic lawmaking can only be for the good - even if it proves inconvenient at times.