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 MDPetitions.com, 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, MdPetitions.com 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.

Among the bill’s myriad provisions that knee-cap petition efforts, I found most distressing one making it illegal to provide citizens with their voter registration information to help them fill out a referendum petition online.

A person’s voter registration data is now publicly available. Why make it illegal to provide such essential voter information only when someone is signing a petition, especially in the Kafkaesque Old Line State?

The bill’s sponsor, Delegate Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery County), did not cite a single case of misuse of such information in his testimony before the committee.

Successfully signing a referendum petition isn’t misuse, is it?

The legislation contains other novel approaches to regulating political activity, such as its limitation on any political committee known as a “ballot question committee,” mandating that such a previously free association can from now on “only . . . (1) support the collection of signatures for a single petition . . . or (2) promote the success or defeat of a single question to be submitted to a vote at an election.”

Call it the Anti-Walk-and-Chew-Gum provision: Marylanders would be forbidden from acting together on two or more political issues via one committee.

After all, dealing with three ballot questions every generation or so is just excessive. As Maryland Senate President Thomas Miller put it, “Our forefathers never imagined everything that we did in Annapolis would be subject to referendum.”

Yet, even with the hyper-democracy practiced of late by some pesky citizens, might there never be a case in which it would make good, old-fashioned democratic-republican sense to allow combinations of citizens to support or oppose more than one issue — say, two, or even three issues — if those matters seem to them to be related?

And how on earth (or in cyberspace) do the legislators proposing HB 493 think they have the constitutional power or the practical enforcement power to tell citizens who wish to work together on a ballot question that they may not “promote” any other issue?

But first, let’s ask: Have there been any problems, scandals, bad behavior exhibited by these committees or by the MDPetitions.com committee that placed the only three referendums on the ballot in the last two decades?

No. Not one word was spoken to that effect by any supporter of HB 493. Though, admittedly, there was no testimony at all — save from the bill’s author — supporting the legislation. Meanwhile, more than a dozen citizens and groups testified against it.

Before the committee, on which he also sits, Del. Luedtke explained that one of the goals of HB 493 is to reduce fraud in the petition process. However, Luedtke did not provide evidence of even a single incident of fraud involving referendum petitions. In a national study, Citizens in Charge Foundation gathered information on verified cases of fraud from 1998 to 2008 through open records requests. “To the best of my knowledge,” Maryland’s director of election management responded, “the state Board of Elections has never referred any petition signatures to prosecuting authorities.”

Luedtke’s bill would make it a criminal offense to reward any paid or volunteer petition circulator in any way for their productivity, for gathering more petition signatures. The result of such a law would be obvious: less productive (and thus more expensive) petition drives.

The goal, stated by Luedtke, was to prevent fraud. In fact, the Delegate informed the committee of a petition forgery scandal that was discovered last year in North Dakota. What Luedtke didn’t mention was that the rules in North Dakota’s fraud-riddled process are precisely the rules he seeks to impose via HB 493 on Maryland’s fraud-free process.

Yes, the legislature is in session.    [further reading]


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.