Paul Jacob

Last week, I sat through four excruciating hours of legislative hearings before the Ways and Means Committee of Maryland’s House of Delegates. I was waiting to testify on behalf of Citizens in Charge against House Bill 493.

For the 20 years before last November, not a single citizen-initiated referendum made it to the Maryland ballot. Why? The state boasts the country’s most draconian rules for verifying petition signatures. An attorney running his own petition effort had his signature disallowed because he did not sign one of his two middle names or write the initial.

Most states use the standard of “substantial compliance” — if they can tell it is the signature of the registered voter, they count it, even if it doesn’t appear exactly as written on the voter registration record. Maryland’s strict compliance, on the other hand, disallows the signature of “Joe” when it’s “Joseph” that’s official.

During the many waiting hours, the committee listened to testimony on other bills that would make it easier to register to vote in Maryland. Every vote should count. But so, too, shouldn’t every petition signature of a registered voter?

The Free State notoriously leads the nation in throwing out the highest percentage of signatures truly affixed to petitions by registered voters. And for two decades of the state’s constitutional referendum process being gutted, the state legislature did nothing about it.

Still, you just can’t keep good people down. A group called, led by Delegate Neil Parrott and April Parrott, his wife, found a way to provide online help in filling out the petition correctly, so that people’s signatures could count. By working both online and on the streets, they petitioned three separate bills passed by the legislature to statewide referendum votes last November.

The folks with Maryland Petitions lost on all three ballot measures, which means the legislature’s enactments — drawing congressional districts, permitting same-sex marriage and providing in-state tuition status at state universities to the children of those in the country illegally — all became law. But in the process of speaking out and getting others politically active, accomplished an even bigger feat: it breathed new life into Maryland’s referendum.

Which brings me back to House Bill 493, against which I finally got to speak for five minutes — and even answer some thoughtful and pertinent questions.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.