Parrott bill would make petitions private

January 01, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |
  • Del. Neil C. Parrott
Del. Neil C. Parrott

Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, wants petitions for referendum in Maryland to be granted the same secrecy as an individual person’s vote.

After his group,, turned in enough signatures in 2011 to get a public vote on a law granting in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants, the state let supporters of the law review the petitions before filing a lawsuit to negate the referendum effort.

Parrott said hundreds of petition signers contacted his group, angry that identifying information they used on the petitions was released upon request. They argued that signing a petition was akin to privately stepping into a voting booth.

Parrott already has filed a bill for the upcoming Maryland General Assembly session that would make petitions confidential and “not subject to public inspection.”

“Personal information contained in a petition” could not be released to the public.

An exception would be allowed if someone needs access to a petition as part of a judicial review of whether signatures that were submitted were sufficient for a referendum.

Parrott and submitted 108,923 valid signatures against the in-state tuition law, which was known as the Dream Act. That was roughly twice as many signatures as the law required.

Casa de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy organization, and other plaintiffs sued, seeking to block the referendum.

The plaintiffs initially challenged the legitimacy of’s online petition website, as well as some of the signatures the group collected in person.

However, the plaintiffs realized that even if all of the signatures collected through the online process were invalidated, still had enough signatures to ensure a referendum.

The plaintiffs are no longer challenging the referendum on those grounds. But they still are alleging the Dream Act was an appropriations measure, not subject to referendum.

A motions hearing in the case is scheduled for Jan. 27 in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court in Annapolis.

Parrott also has signed on as a co-sponsor for two other bills — both sponsored by Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., R-Caroline/Cecil/Kent/Queen Anne’s — related to the petition process.

One bill would seek to amend the state constitution to let an appropriations measure be subject to a referendum.

Another bill would let people sign a petition again if they found out their signature previously was invalidated because of a correctable error.

Maryland requires petition-drive organizers to submit one-third of the signatures they’ll ultimately need by one deadline, then submit the full amount by a second deadline.

The state board of elections reviews signatures after each deadline to see if the petitions meet the requirements.

Therefore, some people knew after the first deadline that their signatures were invalidated. Yet, they were barred from trying again to properly sign a petition, Parrott said.

Parrot said he has heard about people being threatened in California for signing a petition in favor of eliminating same-sex marriage. There was a similar concern it would happen in Maryland, although there were no reports that it did, he said.

Traditionally, gathering signatures on petitions has been a public process, done in public areas. People can see the names and identifying details of those who signed before them.

But Parrott said it doesn’t have to be so public. The online process used extensively by in its drive against the Dream Act let people sign a petition in private, he said.

Last year, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that petitions for a referendum in that state should be considered public.

The case involved Jefferson County, where a citizens’ group pushed to overturn a new county zoning ordinance through referendum by collecting signatures and submitting petitions.

The Shepherdstown (W.Va.) Observer made a freedom of information request to see the petitions. The county denied the request, saying petitions are not a public record because they are not prepared by or on behalf of the government.

A circuit court judge sided with the county, ruling that disclosing signatures would have a chilling effect on citizens who want to petition their government, but the appellate court disagreed.

In its opinion, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals wrote that disclosing a referendum petition “serves a vital function in protecting the integrity of the electoral process and in promoting transparency and accountability in the ‘conduct of the public’s business.’”

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