Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County
The legal issues surrounding voter referendums are as nuanced as the signatures that often come under scrutiny during court battles over the petitions.
John Henry Smith, for example, can sign and print his name on a petition and it would be counted. But if he were to sign “Jack Smith” and print “J. H. Smith,” the signature wouldn’t be permitted.
It’s why Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, wants to make easier the signature requirement for referendum, despite the objections of Democratic leadership in the General Assembly.
“Predictability is important in this process for petitioners and government,” Cardin said during the Administrative Law Section’s panel discussion at the Maryland State Bar Association’s Annual Meeting in Ocean City. “If you create a system that creates certainty, we are doing the right thing in terms of public policy no matter your politics.”
Cardin, who chairs an election law subcommittee in the House of Delegates, said legislation to reform the petition process was not passed in the General Assembly this year because of the “volatile nature” of the session (including the gun control and death penalty bills) and because Democratic leaders felt it would be too partisan to pass such legislation so close to next year’s election.
Speaking of the 2014 election, the primary was moved up to June in part to accommodate a federal law that requires ballots to be finalized 45 days before an election so they can be sent to military personnel overseas. (The September date was too close to November’s general election.)
The legal timeline to appeal a ballot question moves at a breakneck pace by legal standards. A case can go from a circuit court to the Court of Appeals in 30 days, members of the panel said.
But “can” does not mean “will,” especially at the trial court level. How much evidence is admissible at trial varies from judge to judge, with some allowing very little evidence and others allowing six months of discovery, the panelists said.
One thing most judges don’t want to do, according to Francis J. Collins, is go through tens of thousands of signatures that might be contested.
“Form takes over substance,” said Collins, of Kahn, Smith & Collins P.A. in Baltimore. “Circuit court judges and clerks don’t have the time.”
A final fun fact from the panel: Maryland is one of two states that solely have a referendum, meaning voters cannot adopt new laws, only repeal laws passed by the legislature.