Tuition break for illegal immigrants sparks high-tech petition drive in Maryland

Republicans surprised, emboldened by results

  • Maryland Republicans such as first-term Del. Neil C. Parrott of Hagerstown (pictured) see the surprising success of their in-state tuition petition drive as a new way to exert influence they have lacked in Annapolis.
Maryland Republicans such as first-term Del. Neil C. Parrott… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
June 12, 2011|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

In April, when Del. Neil C. Parrott, a first-year legislator from Washington County, began challenging a new state law that gives college tuition discounts to illegal immigrants, many in his own Republican Party thought his petition drive would fail.

He lacked the national support, the cash and the organizational structure that most believed was needed to have a law put on the ballot in Maryland, which hasn't happened in 20 years.

But Parrott's unexpectedly rapid progress — by Friday the state had approved nearly 80 percent of the needed petition signatures — has surprised and delighted Republican leaders. They're now confident that the tuition law will be put before the voters in 2012, which means it will be suspended until then.

And that success, driven by technological savvy as well as populist anger, has emboldened a party that stumbled in last year's elections and has little muscle in Annapolis. Republicans vow to harness technology to power other petition drives, and to challenge more laws passed by the General Assembly.

If Parrott's Internet-driven model can be replicated on other issues, the minority party will have a potent new tool to oppose hot-button legislation — and the potential to alter the balance of power in Maryland.

If the petition drive is successful and the law is overturned by voters, Republicans "may have an alternative route to impact legislation that bypasses the General Assembly," said Todd Eberly, coordinator of public policy studies at St. Mary's College.

But he and others say that it won't be this easy every time.

Political leaders and observers note that the tuition law — which allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state rates at Maryland's network of state colleges and universities — inflames passions like few others.

The soft economy and budget concerns meant that the tuition bill tapped a zeitgeist that benefits Republicans, Eberly said. "This one was tailor-made. You have been handed an issue by the General Assembly that naturally works to your advantage."

Successful petition efforts in the past have always been on similar hot-button topics: abortion, gun rights, education and civil rights. But mounting repeated challenges would be more difficult on low-profile issues and could lead to petition fatigue.

And Parrott's method's are untested. The ACLU last month sent a letter to the State Board of Elections warning that his new website, which links to official state voter records and allows petitions to be pre-populated with exact names and addresses, could open the door to fraud.

The ACLU letter also noted that his efforts could "dramatically change the petition process in Maryland going forward."

Maryland Republican Party Chairman Alex Mooney predicted that Parrott's efforts would "change the way issues are debated" in Annapolis. "It is a really big deal," Mooney said, pledging that the party would "keep doing this" as long as the General Assembly produces "bad bills that are out of touch."

Marylanders have had the ability to petition laws to referendum since 1915, and 17 state laws have been put on the ballot. In seven instances of Maryland voters overturning a law approved by the General Assembly, the last was a 1974 law that granted state-financed services to private school students.

In the past two decades there have been only a handful of challenges to state laws. Several never got past initial organization phases.

Five that did so fell short for a lack of valid signatures, including one backed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. protesting the state's early-voting law. Another group recently tried, and failed, to challenge the law permitting speed cameras.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, acknowledged that "people are more engaged now." Advances in technology, including online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, have given citizens a new way to communicate more quickly.

Busch deflected questions about whether the success on one law could produce any game-changing effect in Maryland. "It is all part of the process," he said. "It is an appropriate tool."

Parrott and his group still have a way to go before they can claim success. Assuming they do collect 55,736 valid signatures by the June 30 deadline, and avert any legal challenge, the group will have to mount a statewide campaign to persuade left-leaning Marylanders to kill the bill at the ballot box.

Parrott's group benefits from changes that other recent efforts lacked. A court decision loosened the rules on signatures, and the State Board of Elections also redesigned its petition form to be clearer.

But Parrott's innovative use of the Internet accelerated the reach of the drive.

He gave his website the generic name "MDPetitions.com," which could for work easily for a law on another issue.

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