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Friday, November 4, 2011

Maryland Petition Law Challenged In Courts

George Wenschhof

Democracy in action is what proponents of petitions and referendums often say when asked why they are undertaking a petition drive. Allowing voters to decide is what they believe should be done in regard to a contested issue.

These petition drives are often a result of a municipal or state action which angers voters.

In Maryland, petition to referendum can be undertaken on a variety of issues such as zoning or charter changes.

Legislative guidelines prescribe time frames and basic requirements to be met before an issue can be put to referendum for voters to decide.

This legislation aims at providing the opportunity for voters to petition for referendum, but to not make it so easy that every government action would be challenged.

Critics of the referendum process point to western states where referendums are used on seemingly, every possible issue, making it difficult to act administratively or govern. They also complain there is often an added cost involved in a petition generated vote.

In Maryland, multiple law suits have been filed challenging state law on the petition process.

In Frederick County Maryland, the dispute is over the authentication process of signatures by individuals who wanted to force a special election for members of a county commissioner appointed charter writing board.

The charter writing board is charged with writing the document to create a charter form of government in Frederick County with county voters having the final say in the 2012 general election.

Some signatures were disqualified which did not include a middle initial matching the voter registration of the individual. Others were thrown out due to a missing telephone number of the individual procuring the signatures.

Former Frederick County Commissioner and attorney John "Lenny" Thompson is simultaneously appealing to the state Court of Appeals and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals a circuit court decision upholding the local elections board action to disqualify the petition based, in part, on missing middle initials.

A statewide petition process to put to referendum the Maryland "Dream Act" recently passed by the Maryland General Assembly is also being challenged in the courts.

In this case, petitioners utilized in part, a computer generated petition to successfully meet the number of required signatures to force a referendum question be placed on the 2012 general election ballot. It is the use of the computer generated petitions that is under scrutiny in this case.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, a petition for a voter referendum on a new ambulance fee also received court scrutiny due to missing middle initials on signatures. In that case, The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision, clearing the way for a referendum on the issue to be placed on the 2010 general election ballot.

In Howard County, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals has ruled the Howard County Board of elections acted properly when they disqualified signatures on a petition to force a referendum on a zoning issue. It is likely the state's highest court will hear an appeal of this case as well as the other cases.

Thompson informed me in a recent telephone interview that is why he filed appeals with both the Court of Appeals and the Court of Special Appeals, hoping the state's highest court would hear his appeal and bypass review by the Court of Special Appeals.

It is Thompson's belief state law conflicts with itself in regard to what constitutes a valid signature.

Clarity is needed as local election board staff is adhering to current state law and the instructions provided to them when they validate signatures.

The Court of Appeals would be wise to take all of these related cases and rule in an expeditious manner on the merits so guidance can be given to both local board of election staff and petitioners.

Interestingly, in a recent conversation with Frederick County Elections Director Stuart Harvey, I discovered a signature on an absentee ballot would not be disqualified if it was missing a middle initial.

Thompson made a strong point when he said to me "a signature by an individual should be verified in the same manner regardless of whether it is on a legal instrument, payroll check, ballot or petition".

Reasonable guidelines are warranted in a petition for referendum in a representative democracy. However, determining a signature to be invalid due to a missing middle initial is neither sound nor evenhanded.

An individual's right to vote and have it be counted is precious and valued - I trust the state's highest court will act to preserve this right.

Stay tuned....


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