By Len Lazarick
The Maryland Court of Appeals has unanimously rejected an attempt by the Libertarian and Green parties to get their candidates back on the state ballot by petition, narrowly interpreting the high court’s own rulings on what constitutes valid petition signatures.
In its 7-0 decision released Monday, the court overruled a Circuit Court judge and upheld the State Board of Elections’ rejection of thousands of signatures on petitions to permit the two minor parties to be back on this year’s ballot.
The two parties were forced to go the petition route after neither gained 1% of the votes for governor in the 2010 election – 18,759 votes. When that happens they must again gather the signatures of at least 10,000 registered voters to win a place on the ballot for their candidates, who are nominated by party conventions.
Ironically, the Libertarian Party now has a record 10,065 registered voters in Maryland. Its gubernatorial nominee, Susan Gaztanaga, got 14,187 votes in the 2010 election won by Democrat Martin O’Malley.
60% of signatures rejected
The Libertarians had submitted 13,787 signatures to regain ballot access, and the Greens had submitted 14,842 signatures. The elections board rejected about 60% of the signatures in both cases.
In its 38-page opinion written by Judge Clayton Greene Jr., the court ruled that registered voters still had to sign their names correctly on petitions. The appeals court said the trial court and the political parties “misconstrue this Court’s analysis” in a 2010 Montgomery County case “by asserting that there is a ‘sufficient cumulative information’ standard applicable to validation of petition signatures.”
This standard means that the printed name, address and birth date of the voter is sufficient to validate the signature, but the appeals court said that only applied to the legibility of the petition signatures, not signing a different name or using a different initial.
Court wrote ‘very, very narrowly’
Mark Grannis, attorney for the political parties, said the court made its decision “writing very, very narrowly” and declined to take up the constitutional arguments he made. Grannis said that the court should apply more permissive standards for ballot access petitions than for referendums.
Grannis noted that while the local elections boards were ruling signatures invalid, they were also using the information provided to update voter files for changes in address.
The appeals court decision said the parties could go back to Circuit Court to make a new case.
“While we’re disappointed that the litigation needs to continue, we’re fully prepared to press the constitutional issues,” Grannis said.
Bob Johnston, chairman of the Libertarian Party, said he and the Green Party would have a conference call with the state Board of Elections to determine their next step.
Parties unsure of next step
“We’re not sure how many valid signatures we have,” Johnston said. Signatures on a petition are only valid for two years. The political parties have until Aug. 6 to file additional signatures.
“We already have the support of at least 10,000 registered voters,” Johnston said, pointing to the registrations figures. “The state could save themselves a chunk of money” by letting the Libertarians on the ballot without filing more signatures to be validated.
There are already statewide petition drives to put the new same-sex marriage law and the congressional redistricting plan on the ballot in November. Each would require about 56,000 signatures, and tens of thousands more than that are likely to be submitted.
One unusual aspect of the court ruling was how swiftly the opinion was issued, just two-and-a-half months after the March 2 oral arguments. Most appeals court decisions take much longer than that. The decision was also the court’s first opportunity to give more definitive guidance on its 2010 ruling on petition signatures, guidance the elections board could use in examining signatures on the petitions that will be submitted in the next month.
The full oral arguments from March 2, 2012 can be viewed at http://www.courts.state.md.us/coappeals/webcastarchive.html.