Saturday, September 25, 2010

Maryland's Right to Petition for Referendum in Danger

A recent decision by the Montgomery County Board of Elections to reject two petitions, one in opposition to a new Ambulance Fee and one on Term Limits, could severely curtail the right of Maryland voters to petition for referendum on any issue ever.

The Board of Elections, in response to a court ruling on a prior referendum effort, adopted the new rules on how the signatures on the petition must be written.  The signatures must exactly match the person's written name, which must exactly match their name as it appears on the election rolls, including notably middle names or initials.  Signatures could also be tossed if some letters in the name were illegible. The problem: that's not how most people sign their names.  Anyone who's normal legal signature which they use on checks, contracts, marriage licenses, or drivers licenses would be thrown out if they sign it 'John Smith' rather than 'John T Smith', or if like many people their legal signature consists of a 'decorative scribble' rather than neat legible cursive. This is the case with a huge percentage of the population.  Because of this the majority of signatures from legitimate registered voters were thrown out on both petitions.

Under these rules, any future petition whether it is on speed cameras, or taxes, or any other issue, will likely be shot down regardless of how many signatures are collected.  Any local government which WANTS to reject a petition need only claim that large numbers of signatures are 'illegible'.

The volunteer firefighter's association who organized the Ambulance fee petition turned in almost twice the required number of signatures.  However approximately 60% of the signatures were disqualified, even though most of those were from legitimate registered voters.

In the case of the term limits petition, organized by Robin Ficker.  Robin Ficker collected more than enough signatures from legitimate voters to get the petition on the ballot, however over 80% of the signatures were tossed over minor technical nuances (notably not because the signers weren't legitimate registered voters).  In other cases Robin Ficker has successfully petitioned property tax limits to referendum despite desperate attempts by the county government to block it, demonstrating that putting issues to the ballot can be a valuable tool to give the voters a choice.

Both petitioners filed court challenges which have now been rejected by the courts.

Because the original court ruling prompting the Board of Election's rules applies statewide, any effort to petition on any issue anywhere in the state will be affected by this.  For example, in the successful effort by Sykesville residents to bring the town's speed camera program to the ballot been subjected to the same inappropriate interpretation of the law as the ambulance fee, the petition would likely have been thrown out.  The petitioners in that effort submitted 56% more than the required number of signatures, and the voters ultimately overwhelmingly voted against the cameras, but this would not have been enough given the number of signatures thrown out in the Montgomery County petitions.  Likewise in 2008 Robin Ficker had successfully placed a ballot initiative before Montgomery County voters regarding property taxes, which was approved by the voters, yet that petition would have been thrown out under these new rules as well.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett
To make matters worse, Montgomery County residents' tax dollars have been used to support the Board of Election's incorrect and fraudulent application of these rules.  In a recent online forum, Ike Leggett responded to a question regarding this erosion of our petition rights, asking "Are you prepared to call on the courts and the BOE to change their decision, and for the General Assembly to pass legislation to permanently correct this and require that a person's legal signature be accepted?"  and "how many of our tax dollars are being spent" by stating "I have no hesitation in asking our County Attorney to intervene in support of the Board of Elections" and called the cost of the intervention "resources well spent".  Ike Leggett's spokesperson Patrick Lacefield quoted to the Post that he was 'happy with the ruling, and hopeful that it will stand'.  This demonstrates that the Montgomery County Executive was not merely sitting on the sidelines, but was actively and enthusiastically supported spending tax dollars to restrict our ability to challenge his wishes by petition.  This is a vital right which is guaranteed to us by the Maryland Constitution.  It is as if taxpayers are being forced to buy a gun for the county to hold to their heads and rob them.

Ike Legget is running for re-election against challenger Doug Rosenfeld.  Leggett's arrogant contempt for our right to petition is reason enough to support Rosenfeld.

The question is, if our right to peacefully petition for change is taken away, is there any option left to citizens other than to "break out the torches and pitchforks"?
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Update 10/1/2010:  Despite the best efforts of Ike Leggett and his taxpayer funded team of attorneys, on 9/29 the court of appeals reversed the lower court's ruling on the ambulance fee petition in a 5-2 decision.  A written has yet to be release so we will need to see if it is broadly worded enough to apply to other petitions or whether petitioners will still will need to fight this out on a case by case basis.