Bill reg­u­lates on­line pe­ti­tions

GOP sees it as re­sponse to Dream Act ref­er­en­dum drive

The Washington Times Daily - - Metro - BY DAVID HILL

AN­NAPO­LIS | House law­mak­ers are con­sid­er­ing a bill they say will help pre­vent pe­ti­tion fraud. But Repub­li­cans ar­gue the mea­sure is re­ally about sti­fling the use of pe­ti­tion web­sites that have emerged as a cru­cial tool in GOP at­tempts to chal­lenge laws in the ma­jor­ity-demo­cratic state.

The House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee heard tes­ti­mony Wed­nes­day on the Mary­land Ref­er­en­dum In­tegrity Act, which would re­quire pe­ti­tion sign­ers to write, rather than type their per­sonal in­for­ma­tion onto down­loaded pe­ti­tions, al­low chal­lengers an ex­tra 20 days to file law­suits against suc­cess­ful pe­ti­tion ef­forts and bar pe­ti­tion cir­cu­la­tors from be­ing paid per sig­na­ture.

Del­e­gate Eric G. Luedtke, Mont­gomery Demo­crat, is spon­sor­ing the bill and says it will re­duce mis­con­duct and help stop the use of fraud­u­lent sig­na­tures.

How­ever, op­po­nents say it comes in re­sponse to last year’s suc­cess­ful pe­ti­tion against the Dream Act, which re­lied heav­ily on a web­site that au­to­mat­i­cally filled in some in­for­ma­tion for sign­ers. The same tech­nol­ogy will be used in this year’s ef­fort to force a ref­er­en­dum on the state’s same-sex mar­riage law.

“It’s clearly de­signed to short-cir­cuit the peo­ple’s right to take bills to ref­er­en­dum,” said Del­e­gate Neil C. Par­rott, Washington Re­pub­li­can. “They’re try­ing to elim­i­nate the process for Mary­lan­ders and make it a hur­dle that can’t be over­come.”

Last year, Mr. Par­rott and other Repub­li­cans led a suc­cess­ful chal­lenge to the Dream Act, a law al­low­ing many col­lege-age il­le­gal im­mi­grants in Mary­land to pay in-state tuition, by col­lect­ing nearly dou­ble the re­quired 55,736 voter sig­na­tures to send it to a Novem­ber 2012 ref­er­en­dum.

It was the state’s first suc­cess­ful ref­er­en­dum ef­fort in 20 years.

Or­ga­niz­ers used a web­site that tapped voter records to au­to­mat­i­cally fill in in­for­ma­tion for peo­ple at­tempt­ing to down­load a pe­ti­tion, and GOP

leg­is­la­tors have said they ex­pect to mount fu­ture pe­ti­tion drives us­ing the same ap­proach.

How­ever, Mr. Luedtke said the aut­ofill fea­ture could be sus­cep­ti­ble to fraud be­cause it de­prives elec­tion of­fi­cials of the voter hand­writ­ing sam­ples needed to de­tect po­ten­tial fal­si­fi­ca­tion.

The typ­i­cal po­si­tions for Democrats and Repub­li­cans are some­what reversed in this de­bate com­pared to other states be­cause Repub­li­cans have fought for voter ID laws to re­duce fraud at the polls while Democrats have dis­missed such laws as be­ing meant to dis­cour­age vot­ers.

“We need to make sure we have laws that are fair and pre­vent fraud, but still al­low cit­i­zens full ac­cess to the sys­tem,” Mr. Luedtke said. “There’s no way to con­firm that the peo­ple whose names are on those pe­ti­tions are ac­tu­ally sign­ing them.”

Mr. Luedtke said the bill will not af­fect this year’s gay-mar­riage pe­ti­tion ef­fort and de­nied that it is meant to make ref­er­en­dum ef­forts more dif­fi­cult.

He said he is open to de­bat­ing the bill into next year and even has agreed to re­move a stip­u­la­tion that would have re­quired each page of pe­ti­tion sig­na­tures to be no­ta­rized, af­ter op­po­nents com­plained as­so­ci­ated costs would dis­cour­age pe­ti­tion­ers.

Nonethe­less, op­po­nents say the bill would fur­ther com­pli­cate the state’s pe­ti­tion rules, which some res­i­dents have com­plained are al­ready too re­stric­tive.

Elec­tion of­fi­cials of­ten throw out thou­sands of sig­na­tures due to such er­rors as fail­ing to in­clude a date, writ­ing an in­cor­rect ad­dress, us­ing a nick­name or omit­ting a mid­dle ini­tial.

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