By Glynis Kazanjian
The Referendum Integrity Act, a bill that’s been lambasted as voter suppression, contains numerous clauses that could potentially disqualify thousands of online petition signature pages before they are even signed.
But the chairman of the subcommittee in charge of HB493, Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, who is also a co-sponsor, says his goal in reforming petition legislation is not to make the process more difficult.
Cardin said his committee may consider a number of amendments this week that would address concerns of the bill’s opponents, as well as supporters of the legislation’s disclosure provisions.
Subcommittee chair emphasizes fair treatment
“It’s my goal to have a bill that reforms the petition system so that everybody feels comfortable with it and that there’s adequate and proper oversight,” said Cardin, who is considering a run for attorney general in 2014. “My personal vision is for a state where people feel protected, safe and treated fairly – I don’t want to be producing legislation that doesn’t at least give everybody relatively fair treatment.”
A companion bill in the Senate, SB673, had a hearing Thursday with committee chairman Joan Carter Conway, the lead sponsor, calling it “a good government bill” that seeks to prevent fraud and require more disclosure of campaign finances.
The bills were introduced as a reaction to last year’s three petition drives that sought to overturn laws passed by the legislature on same-sex marriage, immigrant college tuition and congressional redistricting.
Voter advocacy group opposes address clause
One of the more menacing provisions in the bill that may be changed is the address clause, requiring a computer-generated petition signature page to include the petition signer’s address exactly as it appears on the state’s voter registration list.
Common Cause Maryland, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for democracy and accountability in government, called the bill’s address requirement “overly restrictive.”
Executive director Jennifer Bevan-Dangel said while their group supports certain elements of the bill, they could not fully support it without amendments.
“We really like the financial reporting, disclosure and transparency aspects of the bill,” said Bevan-Dangel. “Where we have concern is, as drafted, some of the elements that deal with petitioners themselves are overly restrictive. One glaring example is language that says you have to enter your address exactly as it appears on the voter rolls. If you live on South Cherrywood Lane, maybe you enter Cherrywood as two words, or you forget the ‘south.’ Suddenly your name is invalidated.”
Petition signers vulnerable to data inaccuracy
Two list maintenance operations currently being conducted by election officials could also make petition signers vulnerable to inaccurate voter data on file. One program, which is mandated by federal guidelines, requires local election officials to update voter records after each general election – a process that is considered ongoing and that can take months to complete.
Another involves the state's transition to the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), which merged voter registration files with Motor Vehicle Association files last fall. To date, it is uncertain if the voter record cleanup has been completed.
Under current law, ongoing list maintenance procedures may not present a problem for petition signers since they are permitted to update their addresses on petition forms. But proposed legislation would revoke this privilege.
Numerous ways to disqualify a petition
Another proposed provision in the bill – similar to the address clause – would also require a petition signer’s name to appear on a computer-generated form exactly as it is listed on the state voter registration list, or, include the individual’s surname, one full given name and the initials of any other name. This is the same standard that exists under current law when signing a petition.
Cardin said he is considering an amendment that would relax the signature verification process, but it is unclear whether his amendment would extend to the name requirement.on the computer-generated petition page.
Bill resembles voter suppression laws, legislators say
Del. Aisha Braveboy, D-Prince George’s, chair of the legislative black caucus, said she sees the bill as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Braveboy, who is also considering running for attorney general, said the bill resembles other voter suppression laws found throughout the country.
“HB493 appears to place additional requirements on citizens who choose to exercise their constitutional rights to petition laws to referendum,” Braveboy wrote in an email. “The question is why? What problem is this bill trying to fix? I am not aware of any problems that occurred during the 2012 general election that would make this bill necessary.”
“This bill could be seen as a tool to suppress the referendum process similar to bills in certain states that suppress voting rights under the pretext of preventing voter fraud and safeguarding election integrity,” Braveboy continued. “These voter suppression laws take many forms, and collectively lead to significant burdens for eligible voters trying to exercise their most fundamental constitutional right.
The man who created the online petition system that helped to generate enough petition signatures to bring laws to referendum in 2012 for the first time in 20 years said the bill is nothing but voter suppression.
“This is one of the worst insults to Maryland voters I’ve seen since I’ve been in the legislature,” said Del. Neil Parrott, R-Washington, founder of MDPetitions.com. “There is nothing that can salvage this bill. It just doesn’t reach statewide referendum efforts . . . it hurts all Marylanders. It will affect every single petition drive in every county across the state because they use state guidelines as their own. This is the Annapolis political machine that wants to shut down any [petition] voting effort, period. This is voter suppression, plain and simple.”
Raskin says he supports referendums
At Thursday’s hearing in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, a co-sponsor, said, “I’m a big supporter of referenda and intitiatives,” and he opposes other proposals to substantially increase the number of signatures required to put a law on the ballot.
Raskin said he wants to “to guarantee the integrity in the referendum process” by banning bounty payment for signatures and not allowing people to validate their own petition forms, as Parrott’s computer-driven process did. “Someone has got to attest to [my signature] who is not me.”
“If any of it seems overly burdensome, I think the chair and I would like to hear of it,” Raskin said.
Bill Kardash of Annapolitans for a Better Community said the bill “will have a chilling effect on public participation.” His remarks were echoed by other citizens finding fault with the measure.
Editor Len Lazarick contributed to this story.