Sloppy signatures, sloppy standards

Our view: Legislature needs to clarify the rules on referendum petitions

March 23, 2011

British writer Aldous Huxley once observed that the only "completely consistent" people were dead. If so, then the majority of Maryland's highest court can be congratulated for producing incontrovertible evidence that they are still very much alive and breathing.

In a 5-2 decision released Tuesday, the Court of Appeals ruled that just because a person's signature on a petition for referendum is so sloppy that it is impossible for someone else to read doesn't mean that signature should not be counted.

By itself, that's a perfectly reasonable ruling and came out of a successful effort to thwart hefty ambulance fees in Montgomery County. It seems to us that as long as elections officials can verify that a signer meets the basic obligations of a legal petition (principally that he or she is a registered voter), that signature ought to be allowed.

But the ruling is very much at odds with the standard imposed by the same court in 2008, when it ruled (in Jane Doe v. Montgomery County Board of Elections) that petition signers must identify themselves in a manner that reflects what appears on voter rolls. For example, someone registered as John Robert Smith must identify himself on the petition as John Robert Smith or John R. Smith — but not as John Smith, or that signature will be tossed out.

The argument used by those who supported this heightened review was that the Board of Elections had a greater obligation to prevent fraud than what had been the standard practice — which was basically to just verify that John Smith was a registered voter, hadn't already signed the petition on another page and lived in the appropriate jurisdiction.

Yet now, as a result of the latest ruling, the signer still has to print his or her name and address to reflect the voter rolls (if you can't remember, just write it all out), but as for the "legal" signature? Well, that's rendered meaningless as a way to verify the person's identity.

One caught a glimmer of this thinking last year, when the court ruled in the Anne Arundel County slots referendum that an effort to review handwriting — even as evidence of potentially forged signatures — was not part of the election board's mission. In other words, identical handwriting in signatures of different individuals was irrelevant.

See the inconsistency? Either Maryland is going to review names and signatures closely, or not. The court's standard seems arbitrary: It greatly reduces the percentage of signatures allowed on petitions but doesn't really combat fraud or even help verify identity. By the standards the court set up, a petition canvasser could copy all the names from a voter list onto the petition and adorn them with an illegible scrawl. So long as all the John R. Smiths were dutifully reproduced, there's nothing the election board or courts could do.

The only real protection against fraud is the law's requirement that each page of a petition be witnessed and an affidavit signed by a third party who could be subject to criminal prosecution if evidence of fraud is found. That provision is unaffected by the court's various rulings, though it's unclear, given the Arundel slots case, how it would ever come into play.

What's so maddening about the appeals court's inconsistent standard is that it's relatively easy to fix. The Maryland General Assembly need only rewrite the law to remove the ambiguity and return to the longstanding practice of not getting so hot and bothered about middle initials.

The problem appears to be that lawmakers are wholly unmotivated to do so, and nobody is marching on the State House to get the law changed. A bill sponsored by Eastern Shore Sen. E.J. Pipkin to correct the problem currently languishes in the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. A similar bill died in the Senate last year.

Lawmakers generally don't like to see their decisions overturned by voters, and that, after all, is what referendums are all about. The politics of same-sex marriage — a controversial measure passed by the Senate but left in limbo by the House — makes progress on referendum reform all the more unlikely for the foreseeable future.

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