Md. Democrats seek to revise petition process, citing new realities of Internet age
By John Wagner,
Maryland Republicans, a minority without much leverage in the General Assembly, thought they were on to something when they tapped Internet-driven technology to gather signatures to put three high-profile Democratic initiatives on November’s ballot.
It was the first time in 20 years that any law had been successfully petitioned to a public vote, and the GOP lawmakers hoped that the will of the people would overturn that of the legislature. But the euphoria was short lived: On Election Day, voters affirmed all three measures, on same-sex marriage, immigrant tuition and congressional redistricting.
Now some leading Democrats are determined to make matters more difficult. Several bills are being drafted that would alter the petition process, including one that would effectively triple the number of signatures required to force a public vote.
Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), the sponsor of that measure, said it would raise the bar to reflect advances in computer technology that have transformed the signature-
“It’s made it much simpler than the framers of that part of the Constitution could have ever imagined,” said Madaleno, whose bill would also reduce the time frame for collecting signatures in some cases. “Technology has changed a lot since 1915.”
Other lawmakers are developing bills that they say will target the potential for fraud when using the newfangled method to enlist petition-signers, in which a Web site supplies much of the information required on the form and suggests other people living at the same address who might want to sign, as well.
Republicans say the whole effort smacks of an Annapolis power grab. Already this session, they have been rankled by a bill introduced by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) that would expand early voting and allow same-day voter registration.
“Anytime a monopoly perceives a threat to their power, they circle the wagons and try to protect it at all costs,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert), who called efforts to alter the petition process “putting a hurdle in front of voters.”
Some Republicans have already identified a few bills during the current 90-day session that they could envision trying to send to referendum, including a repeal of the death penalty and a gun-
control package, both proposed by O’Malley.
Under current practice, a law can be petitioned to referendum with the signatures of 3 percent of the number of voters who participated in the last governor’s election. Laws that involve spending are not subject to referendum.
A Republican-led effort crossed that threshold in 2011 on Maryland’s version of the Dream Act, which grants in-state college tuition rates to certain illegal immigrants. Last year, successful petition drives were also launched on bills allowing same-sex marriage and establishing new congressional districts designed to increase Democratic representation in Congress. All three measures were put on the November ballot. Voters also passed a fourth high-profile measure — an expanded gambling plan — but that appeared before voters at the instigation of the Democratic-led legislature.
After voters affirmed all four measures, O’Malley said it had probably gotten “a little too easy” in Maryland to petition measures to the ballot. In an interview this week, O’Malley said he remains “open to any changes that come out of the legislature.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) have also said they are willing to consider changes to the process.
Madaleno’s bill would change the way the signature requirement is calculated, placing the threshold at 5 percent of registered voters at the time the bill passes.
In practical terms, that would raise the existing threshold from 55,736 to about 188,000.
Madaleno argued that his proposed statewide standard would be more in line with provisions in place in Maryland counties that have a referendum process. Moreover, he noted, the federal government and most states do not have a process that allows residents to petition laws passed by the legislature. And those that do have higher thresholds than Maryland’s.
Virginia does not have a referendum process.
Because Madaleno’s legislation would change provisions written in the Maryland Constitution, it would require voter approval before taking effect.
Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington), who pioneered the Web-
aided collection of signatures on www.mdpetitions.com, said detractors don’t understand how time-consuming the process remains. “It’s still extremely difficult to get anything on the ballot at all,” he said. “It’s a huge commitment.”
Despite the attention his online efforts have generated, Parrott said that in the recent petition drives, about two-thirds of the signatures “came from the way they did it 100 years ago, from on the streets.”
Parrott also argued November’s failures at the ballot shouldn’t be an argument for making it more difficult for opponents of new laws to put them there.
One of the big lessons learned, he said, is that those who organize petition drives have to be prepared to conduct a public campaign in the months leading up to Election Day. On the Dream Act, in particular, Parrott’s side was greatly outspent and far less organized than supporters.
“There’s really no reason to put something on the ballot if we can’t mount a campaign,” he said.
Other bills in the works this session would outlaw paid petition-gathers and require people to have someone else serve as a witness when they sign a petition.
Under current law, a witness must sign each petition submission. But individuals are able to serve as their own witnesses under a court ruling last year.
Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery) said he is working on legislation to change that practice. “If people are their own witness, how do you guarantee against fraud?” he asked.