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Del. Neil C. Parrott seeking anonymity for petition signers

January 12, 2013|By KAUSTUV BASU | kaustuv.basu@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Del. Neil C. Parrott stirred up the state last year by creating a website to collect signed petitions, forcing laws such as the ones on same-sex marriage and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants onto the ballot in the November election.

And although a majority of voters upheld all three laws that Parrott opposed — including the redrawing of congressional districts — his efforts have brought scrutiny to the petition and referendum process.

Parrott, R-Washington, now wants to change the petition process so the names of people who sign them remain confidential, similar to the process of voting for someone.

Currently, petition information — including names and addresses — can be released by the Maryland State Board of Elections on request.

There also is talk in Annapolis about Gov. Martin O’Malley and other top Democrats in the state wanting to take another look at the referendum process, and making it tougher for a law to get on the ballot.

Parrott introduced a bill last year seeking petition privacy, as did state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Cecil/Hartford, in the state Senate, but those bills were not approved by committees.

This year, Parrott is getting help from across party lines.

Del. Barbara Robinson, D-Baltimore City, prefiled a bill on petition privacy before the 2013 General Assembly began Wednesday.

“Some of my constituents had actually signed it,” she said, referring to the same-sex petition that ended up as a referendum on the ballot. “And after they signed it, then others were able to get their names and find out. And they were harassed about it. You have a right to sign, but you really don’t have a right to be harassed.”

Robinson said Thursday that she was mulling whether she should make amendments to her bill or pull it. The issue at stake was the public’s right to information versus an individual’s privacy rights, she said.

Parrott said that if Robinson does end up pulling her bill, he is ready to introduce a similar bill in the House of Delegates.

Robinson said another issue of concern was an incident at Galludet University, a Washington, D.C., institution for the deaf and those hard of hearing, where the chief diversity officer was placed on administrative leave last year after she signed a petition opposing same-sex marriage in Maryland.

That officer, Angela McCaskill, was reinstated by the university earlier this month, according to reports.

Robinson also said some voters in her district were “ostracized” at churches for signing petitions on the same-sex marriage issue.


Better chance this year?

Parrott thinks the petition privacy bill will have a better chance this year because it has become a local issue because of the McCaskill incident.

Last year, people thought it might not be a serious enough issue, he said.

“I think we can use a local example in Maryland and the examples from around the country that show it is not a good idea. When people sign a petition, a lot of times they feel like it’s like when they vote — you know you have the privacy when you go vote,” Parrott said.

Sometimes, information from the petition can be used to intimidate, he said.

“That’s not just part of the democratic process,” Parrott said.

Parrott said he likely would introduce another bill that would seek to make the language on the ballot similar to the language on the petitions that a voter might have signed.

“Otherwise, people might not know what they are voting for,” Parrott said.


Referendum law review

There are indications in Annapolis that the state’s top Democrats are mulling an effort to change the petitions process, thus making it more difficult for an issue to get on the ballot.

Takirra Winfield, a spokeswoman in O’Malley’s office, said in an email that nothing concrete has been decided at this point, but the issue was being discussed.

O’Malley said after the November election that it was too easy in the state for a law to be challenged through a referendum, according to reports.

Michael Busch, speaker of the House of Delegates and a Democrat, said Thursday that the state is likely to review the law relating to the referendum process.

“We do that with all our laws,” Busch said, adding that the Internet adds an option for petitioners to gather signatures. “Now, you can do it online and it makes it a lot easier. I mean, there ought to be a threshold that is meaningful for a ... referendum.”

Busch said when voters sign their names, they are willing to have it verified.

“You put your name on the line,” he said.

But Busch said there was no justification for anyone being suspended or fired from a job just because they have signed a petition.

State Sen. Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick/Washington, said the referendum process should be made more difficult.

“It is just too easy ... just raise the number (of petitions required for an issue to be on the ballot)” Young said.

About 55,800 signatures are needed for a referendum.

On the Internet, Young said, one can almost bring to the ballot any issue that has ever been voted on. And every time that happens, it costs time and money.

“If everything is going to be up to a vote, we don’t even need a government, we can just hire a polling firm,” Young said.

But Parrott said collecting petition signatures was an “excruciatingly difficult process,” noting that a majority of signed petitions were not obtained online.

The arduous process was one reason that last year was the first time in 20 years that Maryland laws were petitioned to be on the ballot, he said.

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