Montgomery County suits seek to restore ballot petitions rejected over signatures

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Richard M. Lindstrom is an analytical chemist for the federal government. He's 69 years old, lives and works in Gaithersburg, and can tell you all about gamma rays, radioactive isotopes and neutron activation analysis.

But according to election officials in Maryland, he doesn't know how to sign his own name.

"I dropped my middle initial on my official signature, oh, I don't know, probably 40 years ago," Lindstrom said. "It's my signature. It's acceptable to my bank and everybody else. But not the Board of Elections."

Lindstrom's signature was among thousands that have been thrown out in recent weeks as election officials scrutinized -- and ultimately rejected -- two petitions in Montgomery County to put questions before voters in November.

On Tuesday, a Republican activist pushing for term limits and a group opposed to a recently approved ambulance fee appealed to a Montgomery court to restore the stricken signatures and revive their dismissed petitions.

Unlike high-profile instances of petition-gatherers run amuck, including irregularities by a crew working for then-D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams in 2002, the issue in Montgomery is a more trifling one, though not without far-reaching consequences.

Maryland law, as interpreted by its highest court, says voters have two choices: They must sign their name as it appears on the statewide voter registration list, or they must include the surname from their registration and "at least one full given name and the initials of any other names."

Unfortunately for the Montgomery's petition gatherers -- and despite many individual admonitions to voters to sign their name the way the state wants them to, even if it feels cumbersome and unnatural -- habit and human nature appear to have won the day. Activists were left without the signatures they needed, despite months of effort and the scrawled names of thousands, or tens of thousands, of residents.

'More than 20 times'

Longtime GOP activist and County Council candidate Robin Ficker has been gathering signatures outside supermarkets and getting referendums on the ballot in Montgomery for decades. Sometimes the questions have been voted down, and sometimes -- as was the case with a measure two years ago making it harder to raise taxes -- they've succeeded at the ballot box. But getting enough valid signatures to even have the questions heard hasn't been a problem for him, until now.

"I have done this more than 20 times before, always in Montgomery County, always in front of the food stores. You've had the same person collecting signatures from the same people in the same place since 1964," Ficker said. "There never has been any hint of fraud whatsoever, and I've never had more than 25 percent of my signatures ruled invalid. Never. Not once. This time, they ruled 80 percent of my signatures invalid.

"They are not even letting people have the chance to vote. It's the antithesis of a democracy. It's what they would do in, like, Zimbabwe."

Ficker's term-limit drive needed 10,000 signatures to make it to the ballot. He submitted 16,000 just to be sure. Election officials said 2,478 were valid.

What changed was a ruling from Maryland's Court of Appeals. In late 2008, in a case springing from a dispute over a transgender anti-discrimination law passed in Montgomery, the court ruled that state law calling for specifics such as middle initials to be included in many cases was not merely a suggestion, as some had argued, but an ironclad requirement.

Election officials are also requiring that signatures be legible, which many people's aren't, said John T. Bentivoglio, who filed the ambulance-fee lawsuit on behalf of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association. The group is concerned that the fee could dissuade some people from calling 911; fee supporters say that hasn't happened elsewhere.

Ficker said his own signature was thrown out. He signs his name Robin K. Ficker. But his full name is Robin Keith Annesley Ficker. He was dinged for the missing A.

High court ruling

The Court of Appeals said that getting the names right shouldn't be too difficult and that state legislators were seeking to prevent fraud.

"The mandatory signature requirements . . . are not unduly burdensome, requiring a signer to provide only a surname, one full given name, the initials of any other names, the signer's address and the date of signing," according to the majority decision, which dismissed as "unconvincing" arguments made in 2008 by the county election board that mandatory compliance "would lead to absurd results" and "would inhibit the ability to seek referendum."

But that is exactly what has happened, according to Bentivoglio, a volunteer firefighter whose day job is working as a health-care and white-collar defense lawyer. The fire-rescue association needed about 30,000 signatures and submitted more than 52,000. Election officials threw thousands out and said the group's measure didn't make the ballot.

"It's almost Kafkaesque, the requirement," Bentivoglio said.

He contends that the law violates Maryland's constitution, which says citizens have the right to petition to put referendums before their fellow citizens. And he said the way the rules are being interpreted is more likely to increase fraud than decrease it. In many cases, the government is telling citizens that they can't use their normal signature, but must slide in their initials or use better handwriting, Bentivoglio said.

"We think a person's legal signature should be sufficient," Bentivoglio said.

Lindstrom, known as Dick to his friends, signed the ambulance fee petition as Richard Lindstrom, leaving out his middle initial, M. His signature was thrown out.

"The gentleman didn't sign his name as is required by the statute as it's currently written and has been interpreted by the Court of Appeals," said Kevin Karpinski, counsel to Montgomery's Board of Elections, which follows state guidelines in judging signatures. "I acknowledge that people are unhappy with the heightened standard, sure. If they're unhappy, they could contact their legislators and see if they'll modify it."

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