Columbia petition drive falls short

36% of signatures declared invalid under strict Md. rules

April 11, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

The apparent failure of a petition drive intended to block approval of up to 5,500 new residences in central Columbia because of signatures that were ruled invalid has underscored the effect of Maryland's strict rules governing validity and the lack of progress to ease them.

Legislation that would return to a standard of "reasonable certainty" that the person signing is a legitimate registered voter instead of rules that require exact matches of every letter, including middle initials, has languished in the Maryland Senate.

"It just falls on deaf ears," said a frustrated Frank Martin, whose earlier petition drive on a different Howard County Council zoning bill foundered because of the same strict rules under Maryland law.

"We have a dictatorship, not a democracy at this point," Martin said.

According to preliminary figures posted late Thursday on the Howard County Board of Elections Web site, only 2,144 of the 3,491 signatures submitted were valid, with 121 left to review.

Unless errors are discovered in a planned recount, it would be impossible for the petitions to have the 2,501 valid signatures required.

The rejection rate among the 3,370 signatures reviewed was 36 percent. Elections board administrator Betty L. Nordaas said the most common reason for disqualification was that signatures did not match exactly those on voter registrations or the person's printed name on the petition.

"People would write 'Kathy' for Katherine,' or 'Pam' for Pamela,' " Nordaas said Thursday.

That rejection rate "was just shocking to me," said Bridget Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association.

The purpose of the process, she said, "is to verify that this person is a registered voter, not if they put their middle initial in their signature."

Maryland law has not changed, but a decision by the Court of Appeals in December 2008 forced state officials to begin following the law to the letter, changing a 30-year practice of qualifying signatures using a standard of "reasonable certainty."

Attempts last year and this one to get the General Assembly to pass legislation to return to that standard have failed. This year's 90-day legislative session ends at midnight Monday.

Meanwhile, Martin and Marc Norman, who gathered more than 9,000 signatures to block a larger supermarket at Turf Valley, are still waiting for a ruling on a lawsuit heard in November by Judge Timothy McCrone that they hoped might remedy their situation.

"They do more to validate a signature on a petition than they do for me entering a voting booth," said Alan Klein, who participated in the Columbia drive as a member of an ad hoc group called Taxpayers Against Giveaways.

Members say the 30-year redevelopment plan for downtown Columbia would burden taxpayers with huge bills for infrastructure needed to support the new housing. They wanted county voters to decide the issue in a referendum on the November ballot.

Russell Swatek, who led the 69 people who gathered signatures, said many who signed insisted on using their normal, sometimes barely legible signature.

"They gave the normal scrawl," Swatek said. "Most people don't consider their signature to be the same as their printed name," he said, even though the law requires that on petitions. "It's very frustrating. We thought we were acting in good faith."

Swatek said they tried to get signers to abide by the rules, which also require a home address and birth date on the petition.

The problem, petition gatherers said, is that if you don't have the backing of a major commercial interest - such as the Maryland Jockey Club, which opposes a developer's plan to place a slots parlor at Arundel Mills - it is nearly impossible to get enough volunteers to accumulate enough valid signatures.

Howard County requires the signatures of 5,000 registered voters to get an issue on the ballot - a number that hasn't changed since charter government was approved in 1968. In 2004, a county Charter Review Commission recommended changing the standard to 5 percent of registered voters, or nearly 9,000 voters, to keep pace with population growth, but that was defeated.

This year, Senate Bill 240 seemed a near-cinch to return the validation standard to that practiced in Maryland for 30 years. The bill had 19 sponsors among the 47 senators and expressions of support from both the chairwoman and vice chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, where it was referred. A hearing was held Feb. 25, but action ended there.

"I think it is a good bill. I support the bill," said Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the panel's chairwoman, as April began. The Baltimore Democrat said the bill was in an elections subcommittee run by her vice chairman, state Sen. Roy P. Dyson of Southern Maryland. Dyson did not say why the bill hasn't moved, but said "there hasn't been anybody banging on the door to get it out."

State Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat and co-sponsor, who sponsored an emergency bill last year that also failed, said he does not know why it hasn't made progress this year.

"There's been a lot of lobbying for that bill," Kasemeyer said. He called elected officials "bobblehead dolls" who nod agreeably but don't act. "They're two-faced."

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