- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Two months before the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union questioned the legality of a website used to collect signatures opposing the state’s Dream Act, the group’s Utah chapter filed a lawsuit demanding that its state allow online signatures for referendum efforts.

The ACLU of Maryland began raising questions last month about a website used by organizers of an effort to force a referendum on the Dream Act, which would allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Maryland colleges and universities.

The group said the site, mdpetitions.com, violates state petition laws by using online voter records to automatically fill in residents’ names, dates of birth and ZIP codes. The site also allows residents to download and circulate their own copy of the petition.

The Maryland ACLU has argued that the system is subject to fraud and that law requires that signers fill in all of their own information, rather than have it done for them electronically. However, opponents have argued that the group’s stance contradicts that of the ACLU of Utah, which in March sued its state to allow online “e-signatures” in place of handwritten signatures.

“They’re speaking out of both sides of their mouths and being inconsistent,” said Delegate Neil C. Parrott, Western Maryland Republican who has led the petition effort. “It’s simply because they don’t want to see the bill go to referendum.”

Dream Act opponents are expected to submit enough signatures Thursday to force a November 2012 referendum on the law. They must have 55,736 valid voter signatures, and organizers collected more than 47,000 signatures by May 31.

The ACLU of Maryland is one of several groups that have voiced recent support for the law, joining grass-roots advocacy group Progressive Maryland and immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland, which successfully requested a copy of the petition’s signatures, which are public record.

While the ACLU of Maryland hopes to tighten restrictions on an effort it opposes, the ACLU of Utah is fighting to loosen restrictions on an effort it favors - a referendum to block a law making certain state documents exempt from freedom-of-information requests.

The Utah group argues that barring online signatures disenfranchises absentee voters, and that the validity of e-signatures has been upheld by a Utah Supreme Court ruling.

Lawyers for the ACLU of Maryland did not return calls seeking comment, and spokeswoman Meredith Curtis declined to discuss the Utah case, pointing out that state ACLU chapters each operate independently.

She said the Maryland chapter’s concerns focus specifically on the mdpetitions.com website rather than all online systems, and that Maryland’s laws cannot necessarily be compared to those in other states.

“We have very specific issues with the susceptibility to fraud of certain systems,” she said. “The site lets you produce petitions for others. And if you were so inclined, you could sign those petitions for others.”

The state Board of Elections and attorney general are reviewing the ACLU’s concerns, state Administrator of Elections Linda H. Lamone said Monday. She said a referendum could be delayed only by a court order extending to November 2012, but that she hopes “any litigation is completed by that time.”

The Maryland Dream Act was scheduled to go into effect Friday, but was suspended until Aug. 1 after petition organizers met a May 31 signature requirement. Election officials have until July 22 to validate the remaining signatures.

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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