Local petition drives get more protection under proposed bill

Photo by Hammer51012 with  Flickr Creative Commons License

By Rebecca Lessner

For MarylandReporter.com

Howard County citizens are seeking to reform Maryland petition law, after frustration when their time and energy spent collecting 6,000 signatures was tossed aside by a late ruling by the county’s Board of Elections. The bill will affect local petition drives throughout Maryland.

“We had a group of people who worked very hard to get a petition through to bring an issue to the voters for a vote, and they got an initial approval, but when it was time to turn in the signatures it was overturned,” said Sen. Gail Bates, lead sponsor of the bill with the two other Howard County senators, about the failed referendum on a zoning bill.

Under SB 193, petitioners will have an assurance that technicalities will not stop them when they collect enough valid signatures to achieve a referendum.

A state-level referendum has to go through the Attorney General’s office to be approved, before the petitioners are able to collect the first signatures. However, county level referendums go through the Board of Elections.

“That already is a current law in Maryland,” said Allan Kittleman, Howard County executive. “If you have a Maryland referendum the Attorney General’s office has to say it’s sufficient. We would like to make sure that our citizens, locally, have some similar protections.”

Sought to overturn zoning

In 2013 petitioners from Howard County started out to collect 6,000 signatures on a petition to overturn a comprehensive zoning bill that they felt did not spend enough time in the public eye before passing.

Their initial referendum-outline was approved by Howard County’s Board of Elections and they were told they did not need a legal summary.

“They said: Here’s our petition, we’d like you to tell us that the format is okay and to give us legal sufficiency for the summary,” Kittleman told legislators on the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

After being given the go-ahead by the board, petitioners gathered half their signatures before their second review. At that second checkpoint, they were then told once more everything was fine and to continue on with the final leg of their race for signatures.

Lisa Markovitz, chairwoman of Citizens Working to Fix Howard County, then took her completed petition and signatures to the board, where she was told the petition “summary was not sufficient.”

“What happened to us was frustrating, of course,” Markovitz said. “The appeal courts upheld that not giving reason for saying the summary was insufficient was okay, I think that’s a very bad precedent.”

Local election director would determine petition sufficiency

According to the new bill, the election director of a County’s Board of Elections will determine the sufficiency of the petition’s legal summary. After reaching a decision, the director will provide petitioners with a decision within 10 days, and then an explanation of the board’s decision if the summary is deemed “insufficient.”

Bates offered an amendment to change the 10 days to five.

Kittleman suggested the Board of Elections will argue they do not have the legal training to approve a legislative summary, however he states that in the past they have hired outside legal counsel.

If it’s not in the board’s current budget to hire counsel on the matter, Kittleman said since it’s his job to approve the budgeting, they will not have to worry about much “budget-busting” from him.

“I think there is a legal cost attached to this bill,” said Stuart Harvey, chair of the Frederick County board for the Maryland Association of Election Officials.

“When we have to defend any of our actions there is a legal cost.” Harvey said. He told the senators that to know the cost of analyzing referendums ahead of time for the budget is a difficult task.

Nonetheless, Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, believes this is a cause worth the cost.

“The petition process is a critical part of our democracy, and we do believe this bill is a step forward in strengthening that right,” Dangel said.