Montgomery firefighters' petition on ambulance fees fails to make Nov. ballot

By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Whether petitions filed in Maryland make it to a vote can hinge on a small detail, such as a forgotten initial.

Guidelines imposed after a court ruling last year have led election officials to scrutinize how names are signed on the dotted line. If the person doesn't include a surname, completely spell another name and then add any middle initials, the signature is disqualified.

And that's why the issue of fees for ambulance rides in Montgomery County won't go before voters in November, although more than 50,000 signatures were gathered in support of a ballot initiative.

The group behind the petition, the county Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, said it submitted about 30,000 signatures by the Aug. 4 deadline. But according to the Board of Elections, only 13,021 of those signatures were valid.

The group needed 15,366 valid signatures to proceed, said Kevin Karpinski, counsel for the board.

The volunteer firefighters' group handed over almost 20,000 more signatures by the Aug. 19 deadline for the second half of the petition, but because it failed to meet the first benchmark for signatures, the petition is moot, Karpinski said.

To get an initiative on a ballot, petitioners must turn in half of the signatures required within 75 days after a bill takes effect. The other half must be turned in 15 days later.

Calls to the firefighters' group about their plans following the rejection Monday were not returned.

Although there were other reasons that signatures were rejected -- some people didn't sign at all or signed with an illegible mark -- most were rejected because they did not follow the new guidelines, Karpinski said.

In effect, the guidelines require voters to remember how they wrote their names when they registered to vote. Karpinski, for example, registered as Kevin B. Karpinski, and he has to sign petitions that way.

The new rubric by which signatures are judged comes from a ruling in Jane Doe v. Montgomery County Board of Elections and was an effort to foil fraud.

But Robin Ficker, an activist who claims to have shepherded more than 20 petitions in Montgomery since the 1970s, said the guidelines thwart direct democracy instead of protecting it.

The guidelines are "perpetrating a fraud on the well-meaning voters of Maryland," said Ficker, who is leading a petition effort in support of term limits for Montgomery politicians as he runs as a Republican for the County Council.

The problem is, he said, people don't remember how they signed voter registration cards they filled out years before.

Ficker signed the petition for the ambulance fee initiative, and his was one of those disqualified. He signed the petition as Robin Ficker. He signed his name as Robin Keith Annesley Ficker when he filled out his voter registration card in 1964.

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