Don't change charter until signature uncertainty clears

Our View

(Tribune )
November 03, 2011

The County Council should delay a proposed change to the county charter's provisions for local referenda until state lawmakers ensure that the local Board of Elections won't reject valid petition signatures because of technicalities.

The county's Charter Review Commission has recommended an amendment with the potential to raise the number of voter signatures required to bring local laws to referendum. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. As the commission notes, the charter language dates from a time when the county was a lot smaller, and the suggested change would allow for future shifts in population.

The current language requires that a successful referendum petition be signed by five percent of the county's registered voters, but no fewer than 1,500 or not more than 5,000. The proposed amendment would change the requirement to five percent of the number of county voters who cast ballots for governor in the last election.

However, before this change is implemented, citizens must get greater assurance that elections officials won't discard the legitimate signatures of registered voters, as appears to have happened on more than one occasion in recent years.

This week a state appeals court ruled against the opponents of a proposed shopping center in Ellicott City's Turf Valley, whose petition was first accepted and later turned away by the county Board of Elections. The board, following a ruling in a Montgomery County referendum case, invalidated hundreds of signatures that did not match exactly those on voter registrations or lacked a middle initial.

While elections officials certainly must take steps to guard against fraudlulent signatures, they should also ensure the protection of real voters who sign in good faith. Until that balance is codified more concretely, this provision of the charter should remain as it is.

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