A silly signature rule stymies Montgomery petitioners

Monday, September 6, 2010

TENS OF THOUSANDS of Montgomery County voters signed petitions recently to put two measures up for a vote: one to overturn new fees for ambulance service and another to impose term limits for county officeholders. But neither question is likely to appear on ballots come November because of a ridiculous state rule.

The rule states that "to sign a petition an individual shall sign the individual's name as it appears on the statewide voter registration list or the individual's surname of registration and at least one full given name and the initials of any other names."

For years, this confusing jumble of words was interpreted by the Maryland State Board of Elections loosely but straightforwardly: Print your name and sign. That changed in 2008, when the Court of Appeals of Maryland concluded that unless petition signers followed the exact letter of the law -- and they meant the exact letter -- their efforts would be voided.

As The Post's Michael Laris reported, this explains why Richard M. Lindstrom's signature was rejected. Mr. Lindstrom, a Gaithersburg analytical chemist, dropped his middle initial from his signature some four decades ago. So when he printed his full name but signed without the "M.," the Montgomery County Board of Elections ruled him out of bounds. The board rejected thousands of petitions for similar reasons, leaving proponents of the ballot measures short of the required signatures.

Backers of the measures have challenged the county election board's conclusions in court, but it is tough to see how they will prevail. The election board was following the mandate of the appeals court, which, in turn, was simply, although strictly, interpreting the law as written.

Perhaps a judge will see it differently. But what is needed is a permanent fix that returns some semblance of common sense and fairness to the petition process. There is no evidence to suggest that fraud was running amok when the elections board was permitted to use the less rigid standard. Legislators should step in at the earliest opportunity, eliminate the mumbo jumbo about middle initials and rewrite the law to return to the pre-2008 standard of "print and sign."

We support the ambulance fee, which was imposed by the County Council, and would hate to see this modest but justifiable revenue stream taken away. But if Maryland law contemplates allowing the people of Montgomery County to have a say on such matters, it is wrong to stymie them on such a ridiculous basis.

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