Another petition fails on technicalities

Our view: Frederick County decision is latest example of why Maryland's voter referendum law needs reform — or at least some assistance

May 19, 2011

Last week, the Frederick County Board of Elections threw out a petition calling for a special election to decide who should write the county charter. The problem was a familiar one to any who have followed voter referendum campaigns in Maryland: Hundreds of signatures were judged invalid.

The petitioners had expected to lose some names but not 40 percent, a discrepancy that dropped them below the minimum 2,000 signatures required for a special election. Some were tossed because they were duplicates, but most failed for technical reasons — not signing the petition as one's name appears on voter registration rolls (first, middle or middle initial and last) being one of the most common shortcomings.

Opponents of the referendum chided supporters for not properly educating themselves on the rigorous — and somewhat peculiar — demands of Maryland law as interpreted by several court decisions of recent years. Step one in any petition drive, they said, should have been to sit down with staff at the elections office and learn the challenges ahead.

That might have been prudent in retrospect, but would it have been enough? What happened in Frederick lies in stark contrast to last year's campaign in Anne Arundel County where petitioners succeeded in getting zoning for a slot machine parlor on the ballot (although county voters ultimately sided against the petitioners and endorsed slots).

The difference was money. Financed by horse racing and gambling interests that didn't want slots at Arundel Mills mall, opponents had millions of dollars to hire consultants and lawyers to closely supervise the process and later defend it in court.

If Maryland and local governments want to keep the voter referendum as a check and balance on the power of elected leaders, the process is so difficult and potentially litigious that it's only available to those with enough money or organization to overcome the barriers involved.

That's simply unfair. Currently, opponents of Maryland's Dream Act giving undocumented immigrants who reside in Maryland the right to in-state tuition rates at community colleges are petitioning to bring the recently-approved law to voter referendum. We support the law but believe opponents have the right to bring it to referendum if they collect the signatures of enough Maryland voters.

But here are just a few ways they could be tripped up: More than half of the signatures on a statewide referendum come from Baltimore or a single county. Husbands sign for their wives or vice versa. A Margaret signs as Peggy or a Robert as Bob since nicknames aren't allowed. The petition pages aren't signed by the person circulating them. Petition instructions are stapled to the signature pages instead of printed on the reverse side.

And there are dozens more. The Maryland State Board of Elections has gamely attempted to explain the process in considerable detail on its website — including an 11-page report detailing the requirements and a sample petition form ready to be printed out — but much of it reads like stereo instructions translated from a foreign language. "Advance determination of sufficiency" and "invalidity rates" are typical phrasings that fall short of plain English.

Lawmakers could easily rectify this problem by clarifying the law and simplifying the procedures. But it appears they have little incentive to do so, as the voter referendum diminishes their own legislative power or that of local elected officials. The higher the hurdles, the less likely any petition drives will succeed.

Failing that, the state needs to invest more in educating and assisting such petitions. Appointing an ombudsman, people's counsel or community relations office would be a welcome start. Advising petitioners on a pro bono basis might also be a worthwhile endeavor for students and faculty at the University of Maryland or University of Baltimore law schools (even if it involves political causes that might not be popular on campus — or in Annapolis).

Democracy sometimes requires hard work. That's why it's perfectly reasonable to require petitioners to knock on thousands of doors, set up tables outside their local supermarkets, enlist an army of volunteers and work long hours in a relatively short amount of time to get a matter put on the ballot. But the process ought not require a legion of attorneys and consultants which, based on these recent examples, Maryland's voter referendum requirements so obviously, and shamefully, do.

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