By Daniel Menefee
Bills to add transparency and checks and balances to signatures on referendum petitions were scrutinized by the House Ways and Means Committee, but seemed to receive lukewarm support on Wednesday.
Del. Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil, who sponsored both bills, said verification of petition signatures by local boards of elections should have the same level of transparency as counting votes after elections.
“We currently have people who go into their board of elections and watch the vote count. It’s an open process,” Smigiel told the committee. He said local boards of elections have long had a “closed process” for counting petition signatures.
“We are not a third-world country and we should have all of our votes counted in an open process.” He said an opinion from the Maryland Attorney General states there’s currently no law that requires an open signature verification process.
Trust but verify
Del. Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore City, questioned Smigiel’s confidence in local election boards and the costs associated with making the process open to the public.
“It sounds like you don’t trust your election board,” Branch said. Imposing a mandate for an open verification process would cost Baltimore City $10,000, according to the bill’s fiscal note.
“Trust but verify,” Smigiel replied. He said there would be no difference in trust than with verifying elections and challenged the additional costs.
“I beg to differ how it could possibly cost a cent to open a door to a room and let a few people watch the process,” Smigiel said.
Maryland State Board of Election Administrator Linda Lamone said an open signature count could compromise the confidentiality of the voter registration database because it requires looking at computer screens containing Social Security and driver’s license numbers.
She said public observation would require setting up facilities and using special software to conceal the private information. The bill’s fiscal note estimated the cost to upgrade privacy software in the voter registration database at $50,000.
Smigiel said that public observation doesn’t have to include looking at information in the database. A public presence in the room, similar to observing counting absentee ballots, would make the process more open.
The State Board of Elections offered an alternative, granting access to an area away from where petitions are being verified, where election officials bring hourly reports on the signature count. Del. Ron George, D- Anne Arundel, suggested observers watch the verification process in the same room and receive hourly reports.
Smigiel agreed to the compromise.
Challenging disqualified signatures
Currently there is no recourse for signers disqualified from a petition, according to Maryland Voter Registration Director Mary Wagner. She said a signer can’t know if he or she was disqualified until after the petition has been certified.
Smigiel also proposed a bill to allow disqualified voters a chance to resubmit their signatures. They would also have access to a database to see if their signature was rejected or accepted before the petition deadline.