January 03, 2012 at 6:47 am
By Megan Poinski
A group of citizens last year, upset about a new law granting in-state tuition to some of the state’s illegal immigrants, were the first in 20 years to successfully petition a law to a statewide ballot.
The referendum on the tuition law, which will take place in November, raised significant issues about the way that the petition process works. Supporters of the in-state tuition law filed a lawsuit to try to get their problems resolved. A court hearing will be held this month.
Members of the General Assembly who spearheaded the petition drive, on the other hand, have proposed legislation for the coming session to solve some of the problems.
Del. Michael Smigiel, who served as legal counsel to the petitioning process, has prefiled two bills to smooth out some of the problems that arose. Del. Neil Parrott, who chaired the petition drive, also has one bill waiting for consideration.
Dealing with petitions in general, the bills deal with confidentiality of signatures, public observation of signature verification, and allowing people to re-sign a petition if their signature is questioned.
“I had calls from all over the state about the petition drive,” said Smigiel.
One of the biggest questions in the lawsuit against the referendum petitions was whether the signatures were valid.
Under the Maryland Public Information Act, an attorney working with immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland requested all petition signatures turned into the State Board of Elections. The petitions were considered public records, and the attorney received them.
Parrott’s bill would make all petition signatures confidential, not subject to disclosure through the Public Information Act.
“When people go to vote, it’s a private vote,” Parrott said. “Nobody knows who they voted for. It is expected to be that way. Signing a petition is essentially like a vote.”
Hundreds of people who signed the in-state tuition referendum petition were shocked when they found out that their signatures were being released to the people on the other side of the political spectrum – and could further be released to any other member of the public who asked for them, Parrott said. Some people who signed and circulated petitions feared retaliation from neighbors and associates who disagreed with them.
Parrott said there was one Hispanic woman who was especially nervous about the possibility of retribution, since many in-state tuition supporters and likely beneficiaries are Hispanic.
“When people signed the petition, they thought that was private information, like voting,” Parrott said.
Parrott’s bill allows the petitions to be seen only when necessary for a legal review.
Public access to verification
Smigiel realized that members of the public are allowed to sit in on the process of boards of election counting absentee and provisional ballots, but not when petition signatures are being verified. One of his bills would open those doors to allow for more transparency, and let the public know what is being seen, accepted and rejected on the petitions.
“Currently, the way it is set up, it is not an open process,” Smigiel said.
The bill states that opening the process up for observation would ensure the “integrity, accuracy and efficiency” of petitioning.
His bill specifically states that representatives of both the people who collected the signatures, as well as the people who are opposed, are allowed to observe. It also states any other members of the public can watch it.
Smigiel said that observing petition verification does not necessarily mean that the names that are on the petitions would be announced or released. When absentee and provisional ballots are counted, he said, the board of elections staff reads off what a person voted for and not who the person is. While observing verification, the same kind of dialogue can take place, he said.
Provisional petition signatures
If a person goes to a polling place on Election Day and records do not clearly show if he or she is actually eligible to vote, that person can cast a provisional ballot. Elections staff will later determine if that person’s vote is actually valid, and then figure out whether it should be counted.
Smigiel wants the same type of logic to apply to people who sign petitions for referendum. Thousands of signatures were thrown out by the State Board of Elections for various reasons. Among the signatures that were not counted were prominent people – like members of the House of Delegates. Some of them were thrown out because of an incorrect signing date, or because someone with a similar name signed it.
If there is a small error in a signature, like a wrong date or a case of mistaken identity, Smigiel’s bill would allow that person to fix the signature and be counted, instead of having the signature simply thrown out.
Letting people know about an irregularity in their signatures could be as simple as posting it on a website, costing the state almost nothing, Smigiel said.
“This would just make it more fair,” Smigiel said. “We want as many people to vote as possible. It is interesting that the only time we put up hurdles is when we say we know better than the electorate, which is the wrong attitude to have. Clearly, that’s not the democratic process, and we should be willing to make the process as open as we can.”
Conflict and agreement
Parrott has co-sponsored Smigiel’s bill to give people with disputed signatures a second chance to sign petitions – though he supports notification more private than placing names on a website.
So it isn’t surprising that Parrott is not supporting Smigiel’s other bill, opening the doors for petition signature verification. And still not surprising is that Smigiel does not support Parrott’s bill to keep the signatures confidential.
Smigiel understands where Parrott is coming from, but said he feels there are enough laws on the books to deal with people intimidating those who have signed a petition. He said he is more concerned with people signing fake names – like accepted signatures on a recent petition to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker from Mickey Mouse and “X.”
“We have to weigh privacy against names improperly added to the list and counted, so that we can have a verifiable list of people who signed the petition,” Smigiel said.
Parrott said that he thinks Smigiel’s bill is a good proposal, but petitioners’ privacy is his main concern.