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Republicans move to limit access to referendum petitions

Republican lawmakers presented a bill to block public access to petitions in order to prevent intimidation and personal attacks on Thursday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, would limit the disclosure of petitioners’ personal information to only those who require access for judicial review after they are filed with the State Board of Elections. As it stands now, petitions and any information they may contain, including photocopies of signatures, are available for viewing by the general public.

Jacobs argued before the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee that the availability of personal contact information allows opponents to post the addresses and phone numbers of petitioners online for the purpose of tracking them down for intimidation. Jacobs added that the wide availability of contact information and signatures opens the door to fraud and identity theft.

“This bill is an attempt to offer a balance between privacy and public access,” Jacobs said. “It allows for judicial action, but it helps prevent those personal attacks that can take place.”

The bill comes after Republicans successfully petitioned the Maryland DREAM Act for referendum. The law, which would grant in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants, will appear on the 2012 ballot.

Some who testified on behalf of the bill, including those that participated in petitioning against the DREAM Act, said many believed when they signed a petition, their information was private.

“You let us lie to the general public,” said Mary Rodgers, a Cecil County resident. Rodgers argued that during the DREAM Act petition drive, activists were not adequately informed that their information could be made public, as it has been.

“Many citizens across the state of Maryland were surprised and upset that this information was becoming public,” said Del. Neil Parrott, R-Washington, who led the petition drive last summer.

The bill faced minimal opposition on the committee, with members expressing their desire to protect voters.

Sen. Edward Reilly, R-Anne Arundel, admitted that there were serious problems with the lack of restrictions on using petitioners’ contact information commercially, but he reminded proponents that negative reactions are the price paid for some opinions.

“When we step out on an issue, we’re fair game,” Reilly said. “You cannot regulate people being happy or unhappy with you.”

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