Maryland legislators looking closely at ways to improve petition process
On Wednesday, Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, presented a bill that would make signatures on petitions confidential, except as part of a judicial review. To Parrott's left are Philip A. Parenti and Susan Payne, both of whom testified in favor of the bill. (By Andrew Schotz)
State legislators are looking ahead to a referendum this fall on a new law granting in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants.
If the General Assembly legalizes same-sex marriage, the conventional wisdom is that that, too, will end up on the ballot.
With petitions becoming a more potent tool in overturning state laws, some legislators are looking closely at ways to improve the process.
Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington — who spearheaded the petition drive against the in-state tuition bill — is pushing to make petition signatures confidential, except for court challenges. Maryland considers petitions public documents.
Other proposed bills this year target harassment in the signature-gathering process, make more laws subject to referendum and give people a second chance to sign a petition if their first attempt is ruled invalid.
“I think people on both sides of the aisle are looking to the future, realizing that this is now a tool that can be used here in Maryland,” Parrott said.
Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee were skeptical on Wednesday when Parrott presented his bill.
Parrott said websites in other states post petitions online, showing the name, address and date of birth of each signer.
“These groups are trying to intimidate people to not put their names on a referendum effort,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in 2010 that Washington state could not block the release of petitions as public records.
The petition drive was an attempt to overturn a Washington state law granting more rights to gay couples.
The Supreme Court’s opinion said keeping the petition process transparent is a check against fraud and honest mistakes and rejected the plaintiffs’ “scant evidence” of harm.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote: “There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance. Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
Justice Clarence Thomas, the lone dissenter, wrote that there are narrower ways to safeguard the process than wholesale disclosure of petitions and that “the state of technology today creates at least some probability that signers of every referendum will be subjected to threats, harassment, or reprisals of their personal information is disclosed.”
Parrott gave the Ways and Means Committee examples of what he said were death threats and other angry comments directed at Washington state petition signers.
Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City, a member of the committee, asked Parrott if the threats were already against the law. Parrott said they were, but they could not have been sent directly to the signers if their personal information weren’t publicly posted.
Del. Anne R. Kaiser, D-Montgomery, another committee member, said people who sign petitions are acting as legislators, who make their lives public.