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Bill would close loopholes in referendum law

With the state’s referendum laws in the spotlight for the first time in two decades,  some legislators hope to close weaknesses in the referendum process that can open the door to fraud.

The House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony on a bill Wednesday that would adopt several measures implemented in other states to help ensure the validity of referendum petitions. The sponsor of the bill, Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery, described it as a hodgepodge of ideas meant to start a discussion on preventative measures than can be taken against fraud.Luedtke made clear that the proposed bill would in no way affect referendums currently underway, such as the same-sex marriage petition drive, and suggested the bill’s implementation date be changed to January 2013 to reflect those intentions.

“This is a discussion best had outside the context of current controversial issues,” said Luedtke.

The bill would enact several changes to protect against fraud, including barring any individual guilty of an election violation from circulating a petition, banning petition circulators from being paid per signature, and extending the period of time outside groups have to challenge a petition for judicial review from 10 to 30 days after certification.

Moreover, the bill would also force petition signers to handwrite their personal information in addition to their signature. According to Mary Cramer Wagner, director of voter registration for the State Board of Elections, local boards only verify that individuals are qualified to sign a petition but do not crosscheck signatures with voter registration forms. This new rule would be an attempt to solve that problem.

Although some Republican members of the committee were receptive to Luedtke’s willingness to discuss changes, it raised the ire of delegates who perceived a double standard in election fraud reform.

Del. Kathy Afzali, R-Frederick, questioned Luedtke’s evidence of voter fraud, citing Republican attempts to pass legislation that would require identification to vote.

“Each session I myself and other delegates have proposed a voter ID bill,” Afzali said, “and throughout this entire committee I have been told repeatedly that there is no fraud in Maryland elections.”

Afzali and other delegates said they wanted to be sure no new laws would create roadblocks for citizens wishing to engage in the political process. However, that criticism was mild compared to some of the testimony heard against the bill.

Several Maryland residents involved in last year’s petition drive to place an act granting in-state tuition to some illegal immigrants on the November ballot testified in opposition. Many asserted that the bill was repressive to voters and questioned its timing.

“Stop trying to pile restrictions on our God-given rights,” demanded one woman, describing the bill as “soft tyranny.” Another man equated the bill to laws present in the South during Reconstruction.

Luedtke admitted that there is no way to ever create a process completely absent of fraud, but asserted that the bill’s intentions were genuine.

“I think this [bill] gets us closer to that goal and with the amendments I’ve suggested I think it would do so without placing a barrier to participation,” he said.

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