When Marylanders go to the polls in November, the most interesting races might not involve political candidates.
The state's voters will elect eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives and one U.S. senator, and will help choose a president, but an unprecedented slate of ballot initiatives is expected to set the state's course on social issues, including same-sex marriage and illegal immigration, and potentially on gambling and congressional redistricting.
This will be the first time in 20 years that a voter-petitioned referendum makes the state's ballot, and as many as three could appear. All were initiated by Republicans who have embraced online technology as a way to distribute petitions and fight legislation enacted by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
Democrats hope to uphold the laws, but Republicans say the measures could help turnout among GOP voters and sympathetic Democrats - allowing them to win the ballot questions and possibly influence a few elections.
"I think it's a tool that's going to be used as needed," said Delegate Neil C. Parrott, Washington County Republican, who is leading the online petition drive. "Hopefully, the governor and leaders in the legislature will pay more attention to what citizens actually want."
Petitioners secured their first victory last year when they used the website MDPetitions.com to collect signatures forcing a referendum onthe state's Dream Act, whose fate will be decided in November. The legislation, which passed the 2011 General Assembly, would let many of Maryland's illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities.
A referendum on the state's legalization this year of same-sex marriage is also likely. A coalition of opponents led by the Maryland Marriage Alliance announced last week that they were more than halfway to their signature goal with nearly two months remaining until their deadline.
Republicans also hope to force a vote on whether to keep the state's congressional map, which was redrawn last year by Democratic leaders. Republicans argue that the map was designed to help Democrats win the long-conservative 6th Congressional District. Many observers consider the petition drive an uphill battle because the issue is not as polarizing as the others.
Gambling supporters are pushing for a vote on whether to allow table games statewide and build a casino in Prince George's County. Legislation calling for the ballot issue would have to be passed during a proposed special General Assembly session this summer.
Less partisan issues will include a referendum on whether to remove elected officials from office immediately after conviction for felonies and certain misdemeanors. Officials now can remain in office until their sentencings.
Voters also will consider proposals to amend the state constitution to require that orphans court judges in Baltimore and Prince George's counties be licensed to practice law.
Observers say the issues - particularly those on gay marriage and the Dream Act - could help Republicans by bolstering turnout among social conservatives, including many black and religious Democrats who are often more passionate in their opposition to the laws than proponents are in their support.
"I think it is so unprecedented having that many high-profile ballot initiatives that it's really hard to predict the effect," Todd Eberly, coordinator of public-policy studies at St. Mary's College of Maryland, said recently. "You could have conservative voters turning out in numbers that they never bothered before."
The referendums are unlikely to sway support for President Obama or many Democratic congressional incumbents, but higher GOP turnout could have an impact on local races and give a bump to Republicans such as 6th District incumbent Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett and U.S. Senate challenger Daniel J. Bongino.
Republicans say the use of online petitions could become a major part of their strategy in election years, giving them one last line of defense in one of the nation's most reliably Democratic states.
GOP lawmakers say winning at the polls would provide evidence that voters are more moderate than their elected officials and are fed up with what they consider excessively liberal causes.
Democrats predict that the election could bring them several landmark victories, confirming the state's status as a bastion of progressive politics.
Maryland could become the first state to uphold same-sex marriage in a referendum after more than 30 states have rejected it. Polls show residents are divided relatively evenly on the issue.
Officials including Gov. Martin O'Malley have campaigned publicly for the Dream Act and gay marriage, urging supporters to turn out at the polls and to donate campaign money.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, who co-sponsored the gay marriage and Dream Act bills, said he thinks supporters will need to draw young voters and effectively explain the issues.
"I don't think it's a slam-dunk, but I think the presidential election will mobilize a lot of people," said Mr. Pinsky, Prince George's Democrat. "If they can raise enough money and advocates can get out there on the issues, I think we'll do well."
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.