ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — For the first time in 20 years, Maryland voters had a chance last November to decide whether major legislation passed by state lawmakers would become law, thanks largely to the help of an online tool that made it easier to submit valid signatures in referendum petition drives.
The sudden appearance of three ballot questions after two decades without any made some in Annapolis talk about referendums becoming a regular feature on Election Day, giving outnumbered Republicans a new way of battling against the Democratic majority in the Maryland General Assembly.
Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and some lawmakers even mentioned the possibility of raising the bar from the verified 55,736 signatures needed to trigger a referendum.
In the end, they didn’t need to.
Opponents of a gun-control bill and a measure repealing capital punishment couldn’t get the 18,579 signatures needed to meet the initial benchmark by midnight May 31. If they had, their next step would have been to shoot for the 55,736 signatures that are required by June 30.
Maryland political scientists say the recently failed petition drives show that despite the help of the Internet, it’s still a challenging threshold to meet.
“I think that, to begin with, it was an incredible exaggeration that this was going to be the new thing,” said Todd Eberly, assistant professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “The online approach makes it easier, but it’s still difficult.”
Republican Delegate Neil Parrott, the chairman of MDPetitions.com, was quick to explore the possibility of steering petition drives this year against a sweeping gun-control bill, the death penalty repeal and a bill that made union fees a mandatory subject of bargaining between school boards and local associations for all teachers. He brought potential petition language to the Maryland State Board of Elections two days after the legislative session adjourned.
A week later, though, opponents decided to challenge the gun-control measure in court, not on the ballot. Sue Payne, an activist with a new group called Free State Petitions, tried to move ahead with a separate signature-gathering effort against the gun-control bill, but also fell short of the needed signatures. She said Republican leaders in Annapolis failed to work together this time to have a successful petition drive.
“We were too self-centered and arrogant and stupid to pursue it,” Payne said, adding that she believes the gun-control measure could have been overturned with a strong organized effort.
Parrott also fell shy of the necessary signatures to refer the death penalty repeal. He did not pursue a referendum on the measure relating to union fees.
Matthew Crenson, a professor of political science emeritus at Johns Hopkins University, said he doesn’t think the gun-control measure was very suitable for a referendum in Maryland, given the fact that the National Rifle Association indicated it wanted to work through the courts.
“It’s also apparent that opinions about gun control have been shifting in Maryland and nationwide since the Sandy Hook shootings,” Crenson said, referring to the December massacre of 20 children and six educators at an elementary school in Connecticut.
Crenson said there was no underlying organization of people who support the death penalty, putting those who wished to repeal the legislature’s ban on executions at a disadvantage for meeting the May 31 deadline.
Still, Crenson said Maryland could be seeing more referendums on other issues in the future.
“I think people who are unhappy with the results of the legislative sessions of the future are going to continue to turn to the referendum process,” he said.
Most of the future challenges will focus on social issues, because taxation measures can’t be petitioned to the ballot. Before last year, the last time a measure had been petitioned to the ballot was in 1992 on a bill guaranteeing abortion rights in the state.
Some political observers say the fact that voters upheld all three measures petitioned last year may have hurt signature-gathering efforts this year. Last year, voters upheld laws allowing same-sex marriage, in-state tuition for some students who are in the country illegally but pay taxes, and the congressional redistricting map.
Donald Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the outcome this year and last only reinforces the notion that Maryland is a deeply Democratic state, where it will be much more difficult for conservatives to overturn legislation.
“It also says the Republican Party is even more marginalized in Maryland than it has been historically, and it’s been pretty marginalized historically,” Norris said.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)