Democrats should fear petition drive

June 18, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND

Annapolis Democrats are putting up a brave face; but if they're not scared, they're not thinking (always a plausible scenario when it comes to Annapolis Democrats). And if state Republicans, meanwhile, are acting as if they've just received the best toy ever for Christmas, there's an explanation for that, too.

The ease at which illegal-immigration opponents have rounded up signatures seeking to put a newly passed tuition law up for a public vote has caught a number of people off guard in a state where the bar for legislative referendum is — or has been — almost impossibly high.

According to The (Baltimore) Sun, no petition initiative has been successful in two decades, and only 17 have succeeded in the history of the state.

For nearly a century, citizens have had the power to put legislation up to a statewide vote, but it seldom happens because it requires signatures of 3 percent of the most recent gubernatorial vote. Further, the definition of a "valid signature" has been so arcane that names get tossed out in droves.

The genius of Del. Neil Parrott's campaign against undocumented students is twofold: 1.) It uses Web petitions that can be spread like wildfire; and 2.) The program, according to The Sun, automatically crosschecks these virtual voter signatures with voter records and corrects any mistakes that might have, in the past, rendered the signature invalid.

Even if you disagree with his campaign, you have to salute his method. And to be honest, this is more in keeping with the spirit of the law. If your name is Peter, your signature shouldn't be tossed if you sign the form as Pete.

The ACLU, for one, doesn't see it that way. It's arguing that the voter, not a computer, needs to provide the required information. This is something of an awkward position for the ACLU, which has spent decades championing individual democratic (and some would say Democratic) rights.

But there is a threat of validity to the argument: This autocorrect system might actually be more, not less, subject to fraud and error. Those intent on skullduggery, in theory, don't need to know as much about a person to sign a petition for him without authorization.

If this issue ends up in court, the campaign will live or die by its degree of honesty. There's been no suggestion of fraud, but if it turns out that people have "signed" the petition without their knowledge, the whole drive could be jeopardized.

It's doubtful that would happen in my view, because really, there has been no need to cheat. In an era when a YouTube video of a child on a sled can spread to hundreds of thousands of people in a couple of hours, there is little reason to think a hot-button issue tirelessly fueled by a few hot-blooded bloggers wouldn't be a success.

And this is where Annapolis Democrats might be whistling past the graveyard.

Their attitude is that it's easy to drum up passion about illegal aliens, but on other issues that are less inflammatory, voters will yawn.

The flaw with that theory is that petition drivers are under no obligation to tell the truth about the law they want to repeal. They could theoretically, for example, knock on your door and tell you that a law permitting table games in Maryland would funnel the proceeds to illegal aliens, even if it's really going to senior citizens. (Well? Some seniors are probably here illegally, right?)

In-state tuition for in-state undocumented kids is not novel. Texas and New Mexico have that same law, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar law in California earlier this month.

What Maryland figures it can tell Texas about immigration would be interesting to hear, but the logical conclusion is that petition drivers here are framing the debate as an immigration issue, when it's really an education issue. The bill applies to kids, but it's been sold as a bill about their parents.

This isn't to say there's not an upside. Perhaps Democrats will be a little less arrogant about stuffing legislation down the throats of those with limited political voice if they fear a petition drive, be it inflammatory or not.

But whatever the case, if Annapolis leaders don't believe that computers and misinformation is a dangerous mix, they better learn fast.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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