Two state bills have been introduced with the same end goal: to destroy the viability of petitioning in Maryland. Our Constitutional right to petition is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and our power of referendum in Maryland was ratified in 1915.
SB0706, sponsored by Senator Madaleno (D), raises the signature requirement on state referendums more than trifold - from 3% of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election (about 56,000) to 5% of the state’s total voter registration (about 177,000).
At the current signature requirement, only four referendum petitions have succeeded in bringing a bill to the ballot since the turn of this millenium. Three of them in 2012 and one in 2006. All four failed to overturn the legislation at the ballot box. The three that were voted on in 2012 represented approximately one-tenth of 1% of the 2,900 bills introduced during the voting cycle.
Senator Madaleno had been one of the bill sponsors for last year’s Gay Marriage bill which was petitioned to the ballot. He is also a sponsor of this year’s Transgender bill SB0449, expected to be petitioned.
HB0493, The Referendum Integrity Act, sponsored by Delegate Luedtke (D), is an administrative bill which creates a bureaucratic nightmare for any petition sponsor and undue hardships for Maryland voters wishing to sign a petition.
The attack is on three levels with this bill - against petition sponsors, against petition circulators, and against petition signers. It makes signing a petition cumbersome with increased restrictions and even crosses into petitioner intimidation, it places additional requirements on petition circulators, and it hogties the petition sponsors with time-consuming and expensive bureaucratic requirements.
ATTACKS ON PETITION SPONSORS
New rule: Petition sponsors must first file as a ballot issue committee before a petition can be circulated and can only file as sponsor of one petition.
Argument: This is one of the most destructive provisions of the bill. This expands the definition of a campaign finance committee to include citizen driven petitions. Currently, the petition process is not considered part of the ballot initiative until the petition is validated and the ballot question is scheduled to appear on the ballot. Then the push for or against begins and is subject to campaign finance laws, including restrictions on donations. This bill would put the entire process under campaign finance law rules and restrictions, turning a citizen-driven effort into a bureaucratic mess. Requiring petition sponsors to file as a ballot issue committee destroys the organic, grassroots nature of citizen-driven petitioning. Instead, this would allow only organized petition sponsors. Petitioning is a right of an individual, and any individual can currently file as a petition sponsor in an exercise of our Constitutional petition right. There is also no parameter to expand the time permitted to collect signatures due to the increased organization requirement which will eat into the petition sponsor’s time and money. This is a travesty.
New rule: Before an online petition form can be generated for signature, the voter must enter all their personal identifying information exactly as it appears in voter registration rolls.
Argument: Even online voter registration on the MD Board of Elections website only requires the entering of name, DOB, and zip. The address pops-up and no signature is required, just a drivers license number. Why is there such a double standard when it comes to petitions? On the petition, the verification of a voter’s intent is embodied in his signature on the petition form, not in the filling out of identifying information on the form. Many voters have difficulties writing legibly, whether due to age, medical condition, or just sloppy handwriting habits. At the polls, voters with a disability or language barrier can get assistance in completing their ballot. Restricting the use of pre-filled online forms is petitioner disenfranchisement. In addition, a pre-filled form makes verification by the board vastly simpler and more accurate, saving taxpayer dollars spent on the verification process. Pre-filled forms serve the stated purpose of Petition Integrity much more than do restrictions on them.
New rule: Circulators cannot be paid on a per signature basis for signature collection.
Argument: The more onerous the circulation requirements, the more likely that paid circulators will be necessary. Circulators are nothing more than a vehicle of disseminating the petition to voters. The requirement to understand what is being signed lies solely with the signer. This bill disenfranchises the voter by trying to protect him from Delegate Luedtke’s perception of the voter’s ineptitude or gullibility. The petition is presented with bill summary on the back, the signer decides. If a similar protection were placed on political campaigns, many of our elected officials may not have made it to the ballot.
ATTACKS ON PETITION CIRCULATORS
New Rule: Circulators must complete training from the Board of Elections.
Argument: At taxpayer expense, circulators now will have to be certified by the board of elections and complete an online training course before they can collect signatures. This eliminates the possibility of citizens circulating petitions in a grassroots movement.
New Rule: Petition signers cannot act as a circulator for his own signature.
Argument: So you can’t be Joe Citizen, download a petition form from the internet, sign it and expect your signature to count. You can’t even have a family member or friend sign as the petition circulator. Now, you’ll have to find someone who has received the newly required circulator training from the board of elections. This is clearly petitioner disenfranchisement.
New rule: Circulators must initial beside each entry on the petition form.
Argument: Initialing beside each entry even though the affidavit and signature on each page bears their witness is nothing more than creating undue hardships on signature collection.
ATTACKS ON PETITION SIGNERS
New Rule: Potential signers must be warned that, by signing the petition, their personal information will be subject to public disclosure.
Argument: This is petitioner intimidation. After last summer’s numerous counts of harassment from internet posting of Gay Marriage petition signers’ personal information, this rule delivers the threat of continued harassment on the heels of fresh memories. Imagine if voters at the polls were warned that if they vote, or even register to vote, their personal information and voting history will be publicly released. The ACLU would throw a justifiable conniption. But for petition rights – silent consent. The new rules take us backward in the advancements we have fought for regarding petition requirements.
New Rule: The signer’s address must be entered exactly as on voter registration records.
Argument: This Draconian new signature requirement reverses the prior decision on this matter. Currently, as long as the board of elections can identify you from your entry, it is accepted. Was it Avenue, or Ave? Does it include the zip extension? Was it Apt. 3 or #3?
New rule: Address information entered on a petition cannot be used to update a voter’s address.
Argument: Currently, if you enter an address entirely differently than what’s in your voter registration record, the board of elections will assume it is the most current address for you and use it to update your record. With the new rule, if you’ve moved in the time between your registration and whenever a petition may be presented to you while you’re out grocery shopping, your signature does not count if you haven’t yet updated your voter registration address. Yet, they are proposing same day voter registration, meaning you can register to vote and vote on the same day. But you can’t sign a petition without an updated address registration. Absurd.
New rule: Full date of birth with year must be entered.
Argument: The year had been eliminated as a requirement because it was not necessary in order to identify the voter’s registration, and because many people are shy about disclosing their age.
New rule: Signers must attest to a statement that they support the purpose of the petition.
Argument: Many signers support a petition, not because they take a particular side of the issue itself, but merely because they support allowing the voters to have final say on the issue at the polls.
These new rule changes will also affect county and municipal petitions since the local boards follow the state rules as guidelines. Petitions for third party candidates, such as Rob Sobhani, will likely not make it to the ballot with these changes.
Watch for petitions to protect our right to petition. We’ll have only one shot at this, folks. If we fail, our right to petition in Maryland will be lost.