Online petitions prove to be plus and minus for Maryland’s GOP relevancy

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Perennially outgunned Maryland Republicans hoped the strategy of using the Internet to petition laws to the ballot might help make the minority party relevant in state politics again.

But on Tuesday, three controversial laws that petitioners put on the ballot were decisively affirmed, leaving Republicans scrambling to defend the strategy and top Democrats to re-examine the state’s referendum process.

The issues — the Dream Act, the state’s congressional map and same-sex marriage — were forced to the ballot by mostly conservative opponents. During floor debates, signature collection and the campaign, the opposition argued the laws were too left-leaning and out of touch with voter sentiment.

Republicans had trumpeted online petitioning — where voters are able to print and distribute their own petition copies — as a new tool in fighting a Democratic majority that has little trouble getting its way in Annapolis. Websites through MdPetitions.com and the Maryland Marriage Alliance were both used to put the petition drives over the top.

While deriding GOP efforts as futile, Gov. Martin O’Malley suggested Tuesday night that the General Assembly should make it tougher to get issues to the polls.

To put a law on the ballot, the state constitution requires voter signatures equal to 3 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election — 55,737 this year. Without technological help, no state law had been petitioned to the ballot in two decades.

“But because of the Internet, that’s become so easy to do electronically that the legislature probably needs to revisit that,” Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, told WAMU-FM.

The governor’s office declined to elaborate Wednesday.

A change to the current signature requirement would require a constitutional amendment, which would have to be approved by voters.

More than 2.4 million voters cast ballots on Election Day, upholding the Dream Act, which would allow in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants, by a 16-point margin — wider than the margin when it cleared the House of Delegates last year. Voters also approved a congressional map that passed the General Assembly along mostly party lines — which Republicans and some Democrats had called blatant gerrymandering — by 27 points.

Voters approved same-sex marriage 52 percent to 48 percent, reminiscent of the close margin by which the bill passed the General Assembly.

Democrats argued Wednesday that Republican petition organizers vastly overestimated their support on all three issues.

“They went many months thinking that Maryland voters are a lot less open than they actually are,” said Delegate Jolene Ivey, a Prince George’s Democrat who favored all three initiatives. “Clearly, the voters ended up agreeing with us.”

State Republicans were undaunted Wednesday, vowing there will be more petitions to come in future years.

State GOP Chairman Alex X. Mooney said referendums are a key tool against the governor’s “radical agenda,” and he pointed out that nearly half of the 280,000 total signatures received came from Democrats and independents.

And even though none of the three petitioned issues was overturned Tuesday, Republicans said that does not mean the strategy is not working. Delegate Michael D. Smigiel Sr., Cecil Republican, said petitioners put too much of their efforts into getting the issues on the ballot and did not run strong campaigns to persuade voters.

“There was no coordinated effort after we went through the extraordinary steps of getting these on the ballot,” he said. “Next time, I think we just need to divide up the responsibility across the state. This is just part of the learning process.”

Mr. Smigiel also harshly criticized the governor for suggesting that the state raise its petition requirements.

“Citizens have the right to question their elected officials. If anything, we should make it easier,” he said.

Democratic House leaders did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday on the possibility of changing Maryland’s referendum requirements, but Ms. Ivey said her opinion will depend on how often Republicans try to put issues on the ballot.

“We’ll see if they continue to challenge every bill that gets passed that they lose on,” she said. “What, are we going to be like California and have a 50-page ballot? We elect representatives for a reason, and we’re just doing our jobs.”

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