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Maryland legislators looking closely at ways to improve petition process

February 04, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com
  • 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

The petition process is under a microscope in Annapolis.

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.”


Petition intimidation

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.

Susan Payne, who testified in favor of Parrott’s bill, argued that anonymity has long been an essential element in dissent “against the tyranny of a majority.”

The public should trust state officials who rule on the legitimacy of petitions, she said.

Philip A. Parenti of Cheltenham, Md., testified that opponents want access to signatures to harass people, not to verify the validity.

Rosenberg also has a bill related to the petition process.

Under existing Maryland law, it’s a misdemeanor to intimidate someone to sign a petition. His proposal is to extend the law to include people who try to coerce others not to sign a petition.

The bill passed the House last year, but died in the Senate.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., R-Eastern Shore, has three bills related to the referendum process.

One proposes that if state officials ruled, during an initial review, that a signature was invalid, the person would have another chance to properly sign before a final review.

Another bill calls for open hearings when petition signatures are reviewed for their validity.

The third measure would make appropriations bills subject to referendum.

Smigiel disagrees with Parrott on signature confidentiality, arguing that transparency is the best way to protect against fake names or hijacked identities.

“We have a process available to punish someone who intimidates someone who has signed up. It’s already there,” Smigiel said. “I’m more concerned about the integrity of the election and making sure that it’s a fair process, and only those names that should be counted are counted, than I am in hiding and making it easier to make it a less honest process.”


Know thy neighbor

The websites Parrott shared with the committee are knowthyneighbor.org and whosigned.org, which are connected.

Tom Lang said he helped start knowthyneighbor.org in 2005 as a reaction to a referendum effort to ban same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.

During an interview on Friday, he said he was “tired of the hubris coming from the anti-gay side” and learned that the petitions were public records.

Posting the petitions online, with a searchable system, was meant to let the public know who was opposed to same-sex marriage and pressure signers into discussing and defending their actions.

The website expanded its petition-posting effort into Florida, Oregon and Arkansas because of petition drives that also would have limited gay rights.

A companion website, whosigned.org, formed because of a similar debate in Washington state.

“When you are taking people’s rights away, you should have the guts to stand up” and talk about it, Lang said.

All of the petitions remain posted; Lang said close to a million names are online. There was no proof in the Washington state case that went before the Supreme Court that the web posting led to any direct harassment, he said.

Lang said his organization encourages “civil, legal and respectful discourse.”

He dismissed the idea that posting names, addresses and dates of birth could contribute to identity theft; the information already is public through election board databases.


West Va. bill

A month ago, after reading about Parrott’s bill in a Herald-Mail story, Del. Larry D. Kump, R-Berkeley, filed a similar signature confidentiality bill in the West Virginia House of Delegates.

There, he appears to be virtually alone in his view. The House of Delegates voted 86-1 last month on a separate bill that made the name of people who signed candidacy petitions public. The bill is being considered in the Senate.

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

In an email to The Herald-Mail, Kump wrote, “While I agree that petition signatures should be verified, the publication of individual signatures is a transparent attempt to discourage independent voices and initiatives. Pogo said it best when he observed that, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’ In this case, that truism applies to this collective vote in the West Virginia House of Delegates.”

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