- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — Organizers of a petition against Maryland’s same-sex marriage law have collected enough valid voter signatures to send the law to a November referendum, state election officials said Thursday.

The state Board of Elections announced that local elections boards have verified 70,039 signatures on the petition to force a statewide vote on the law — exceeding the 55,736 signatures that were required to be turned in by June 30.

The Maryland Marriage Alliance has led the petition effort against the law, which was passed in February by the General Assembly. The group says it submitted more than 122,000 signatures last week to the state.

“We’re ecstatic that Maryland’s citizens are guaranteed the opportunity to vote on such a critical issue,” said MMA Executive Director Derek McCoy, who added that the group will continue collecting signatures through the end of the month. “Multiple thousands of people across the state are energized by this issue and want to see it go to referendum.”

Local elections boards must still count the nearly 50,000 remaining signatures on the petition.

And they must start their review of the 28,000 signatures turned in by a group hoping to force a referendum on the state’s new congressional district map.

State officials say the petitions workload is virtually unprecedented in a state that has had just one successful referendum effort in the past 20 years, but that elections officials are up to the challenge.

“There’s no question that it’s a lot of work and it will mean extra hours,” said Mary Cramer Wagner, director of the state Board of Elections’ voter registration division. “But the [local boards] will get it done.”

Elections officials must count all of the marriage signatures by June 18 and all of the congressional redistricting signatures by June 20.

While the marriage petition easily passed the June 30 threshold, organizers of the redistricting petition hope they met the preliminary requirement of having submitted 18,579 signatures — one-third of the June 30 requirement — by May 31.

The signatures must be sorted by county before they are submitted, with no sheet containing voters from more than one local jurisdiction.

The local boards are then responsible for verifying all signatures from their jurisdiction and must do so within 20 days of when the signatures were first submitted to the state.

While the task appears daunting, Ms. Wagner said local boards are right on schedule, having processed about 74,000 signatures by Thursday.

She said workers have had to overcome the fact that some colleagues are away for an annual conference with some Anne Arundel County Board of Elections employees, even by working over the past weekend.

Harold Ruston, manager of election operations for the Prince George’s County Board of Elections, estimated that 10 to 15 employees have had to review more than 10,000 signatures.

He said a few employees are working an extra hour or two each day and are making good progress.

“We’re working on them just fine,” he said. “We have 20 days to do it and we fully expect to get them done.”

The process might sound tedious but elections officials give the petitions far more than a casual glance, typically throwing out thousands of signatures due to minor mistakes and omissions.

All signatures must come from registered voters and be accompanied by the signing date as well as the signer’s full name, permanent address and date of birth as they appear on voter records.

Signatures are often voided for reasons such as an outdated address, omitted signing date, forgotten middle initial or the use of a nickname rather than birth name.

Last year, officials voided nearly 1 of every 6 signatures on a petition against the Dream Act — a law that would let many college-age illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition.

About 24,000 of 132,000 signatures were rejected, but organizers still met their goal of getting the law on this November’s ballot.

The gay marriage petition has fared far better, with officials rejecting just 4,272 signatures compared with the more than 70,000 they have approved.

Delegate Neil C. Parrott, who is leading the petition effort against the congressional district map, said he thinks the state’s requirements are a little strict and that officials should acknowledge the signer’s intent rather than looking for technicalities.

However, he said petitioners have learned to work within the guidelines and spot potential errors.

“They are very stringent,” said Mr. Parrott, Washington Republican. “But as a collector, we know what to look for so that makes for a much better process.”

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

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