The state’s top court in a deferred opinion has determined that signatures need not be legible on referendum petitions to count.
The 5-2 Court of Appeals opinion released Tuesday came six months after its Sept. 29 per curiam ruling reversing a judgment by the Montgomery County Circuit Court regarding invalid signatures on a petition.
“The question is whether a signature must be ‘legible,’ when there is other information indentifying the signer, in order to be counted pursuant to the petition validation and verification process,” Judge Clayton Greene Jr. wrote for the court.
“We hold that a signature on a petition for referendum is but one component of the voter’s identity that is to be considered in the validation process, and that if the signer’s entire entry is statutorily sufficient under 6-203, an illegible signature, on its own, does not preclude validation,” he continued.
The court’s opinion did not defer to the Montgomery County Board of Elections’ interpretation that the signatures needed to be readable.
The attorney for a group of firefighters who wanted to have county residents vote on an emergency services fee said citizens’ groups still have a very high burden to get enough signatures for a referendum to make it onto the ballot, but the court’s decision offered clarity.
“I think they restored a common-sense interpretation to the election law,” said John T. Bentivoglio of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in Washington, D.C. “Most people don’t sign their name with a cursive version of every letter in their full name.”
Kevin Karpinski, a name partner with Karpinski, Colaresi & Karp PA in Baltimore, who represented the county, was out of town and could not be reached.
University of Maryland School of Law professor Larry Gibson, who teaches election law, said the court’s decision “makes absolute sense.”
“There are signature requirements all over the law,” Gibson said, citing tax returns, contracts and other legal documents. “They [the high court] have never required the signature to be legible to be valid under the law.”
In June 2010, the Montgomery County Council passed a bill establishing an Emergency Medical Services Transport Fee, a move the county’s Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association challenged through a petition for a referendum.
The county only accepted a portion of the needed signatures on the association’s petition because it said some were illegible, meaning that the referendum question would not be on the ballot.
The Montgomery County Circuit Court agreed with the county’s Board of Elections that signatures needed to be readable to be counted. But the Court of Appeals took up the case and disagreed, issuing its per curiam ruling to allow time to get the referendum question on the ballot.
In the November election, a majority voted against the fee.
The Maryland State Board of Elections will review the opinion with the attorney general’s office to determine if the board must change its current policy, said Linda H. Lamone, the board’s administrator.
Under current policy, the signature has “to be legible or you could tell by the signature that it was the same name as the printed name,” Lamone said.
“We’re really pleased that the court has issued its opinion,” she added. “We’re studying the opinion to see how we implement it.”
In his dissent, Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr., joined by Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, said evolution blessed mankind with “opposable thumbs,” and that the decision “strikes a de-evolutionary blow by rewarding failure to put into practice that skill” to sign our names.
Legal affairs reporter Steve Lash contributed to this article.
WHAT THE COURT HELD
Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association, et al. v. Montgomery County Board of Elections, et al., No. 86, Sept. Term 2010. Reported. Opinion by Greene, J. Filed March 22, 2010.
Do signatures on a petition for a referendum need to be legible to be counted?
No; the signature is one component of a voter’s identity.
John T. Bentivoglio for petitioner; Kevin Karpinski for respondents.