- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — House lawmakers are considering a bill they say will help prevent petition fraud. But Republicans argue the measure is really about stifling the use of petition websites that have emerged as a crucial tool in GOP attempts to challenge laws in the majority-Democratic state.

The House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony Wednesday on the Maryland Referendum Integrity Act, which would require petition signers to write, rather than type their personal information onto downloaded petitions, allow challengers an extra 20 days to file lawsuits against successful petition efforts and bar petition circulators from being paid per signature.

Delegate Eric G. Luedtke, Montgomery Democrat, is sponsoring the bill and says it will reduce misconduct and help stop the use of fraudulent signatures.

However, opponents say it comes in response to last year’s successful petition against the Dream Act, which relied heavily on a website that automatically filled in some information for signers. The same technology will be used in this year’s effort to force a referendum on the state’s same-sex marriage law.

“It’s clearly designed to short-circuit the people’s right to take bills to referendum,” said Delegate Neil C. Parrott, Washington Republican. “They’re trying to eliminate the process for Marylanders and make it a hurdle that can’t be overcome.”

Last year, Mr. Parrott and other Republicans led a successful challenge to the Dream Act, a law allowing many college-age illegal immigrants in Maryland to pay in-state tuition, by collecting nearly double the required 55,736 voter signatures to send it to a November 2012 referendum.

It was the state’s first successful referendum effort in 20 years.

Organizers used a website that tapped voter records to automatically fill in information for people attempting to download a petition, and GOP legislators have said they expect to mount future petition drives using the same approach.

However, Mr. Luedtke said the auto-fill feature could be susceptible to fraud because it deprives election officials of the voter handwriting samples needed to detect potential falsification.

The typical positions for Democrats and Republicans are somewhat reversed in this debate compared to other states because Republicans have fought for voter ID laws to reduce fraud at the polls while Democrats have dismissed such laws as being meant to discourage voters.

“We need to make sure we have laws that are fair and prevent fraud, but still allow citizens full access to the system,” Mr. Luedtke said. “There’s no way to confirm that the people whose names are on those petitions are actually signing them.”

Mr. Luedtke said the bill will not affect this year’s gay-marriage petition effort and denied that it is meant to make referendum efforts more difficult.

He said he is open to debating the bill into next year and has even agreed to remove a stipulation that would have required each page of petition signatures to be notarized, after opponents complained associated costs would discourage petitioners.

Nonetheless, opponents say the bill would further complicate the state’s petition rules, which some residents have complained are already too restrictive.

Election officials often throw out thousands of signatures due to such errors as failing to include a date, writing an incorrect address, using a nickname or omitting a middle initial.

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