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Court of Appeals: Greens, Libertarians need more signatures

Maryland’s top court on Monday dealt a blow to the Libertarian and Green parties, unanimously finding that each group is still more than 4,000 signatures short of the 10,000 needed to get a candidate for office on the ballot this year.

The parties have until Aug. 6 — three months before Election Day — to make up the shortfall in valid signatures following the Court of Appeals’ decision.

“It’s a setback but it’s not the end of the world,” said Lorenzo Gaztanaga, the Maryland Libertarian Party’s spokesman. “We’ll do whatever we need to do to get ourselves squared away,” he added, referring to the party’s continued petition drive.

Brian Bittner, the Maryland Green Party’s treasurer, said the group will continue collecting signatures “on the street, on the ground level as we have before” and online at the party’s website. The petition drive will get a boost from July 12 to 15, when the party’s national convention will be in Baltimore, Bittner said.

“You don’t have to be a Maryland resident to collect signatures,” he added. “Hopefully, the help of all these party members from all over the country will put us over the 10,000.”

The Green and Libertarian parties had joined forces in court to challenge the board’s invalidation of more than 17,000 signatures they had collected between their petition drives.

The Court of Appeals agreed with State Board of Elections that, under Section 6-203 of the Election Law Article, signatures must include the signer’s last and given names as they appear on the statewide voter registration list. The board had invalidated signatures that were missing the signer’s first name or that included a nickname.

The two parties argued that the names on the petition need not mirror the voter registration but only provide “sufficient cumulative information,” such as the name and address of the signer, to enable the board to verify the person’s identity.

The court said the board should consider sufficient cumulative information only if the signature is illegible, not to validate an otherwise invalid signature.

The decision also upheld the board’s decision to reject “back-up” signatures by people who had signed a second time, regardless of validity, if their first signatures had been deemed invalid.

“[T]he General Assembly has determined that, in an effort to prevent fraud in the context of new party petitions, it is an offense for a person with the requisite culpability to sign a petition more than once,” Judge Clayton Greene Jr. wrote for the court.

“Once [the board] evaluates a petition entry by an individual, and determines whether to validate or invalidate the entry, any other entries by the same individual on the same petition that are subsequently evaluated by [the board] are duplicates within the meaning of Section 6-203(b) and should not be validated and counted.”

State Board of Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone said she was “pleased” not only by the Court of Appeals’ ruling but its timing.

The court issued its decision as the board prepares this month to receive the first of two sets of signatures accompanying a petition challenging the implementation of a law to permit same-sex couples to lawfully wed in Maryland beginning Jan. 1.

The board has the duty to verify and count the signatures on the petition, which could bring the law’s fate to the November ballot.

“If [the judges] were going to change anything, I would need some lead time to put their changes into practice,” Lamone said. “Fortunately, they haven’t changed anything, so we’re good to go for this next round of petitions.”

The Libertarian and Green organizations had achieved political party status — and the ability to put candidates on the ballot — as of January 2007 after having collected the requisite 10,000 signatures.

But under state law, their “party” status expired on Dec. 31, 2010, because they were unable to show 1 percent registration among Maryland voters, and their respective candidates for governor failed to receive at least 1 percent of the vote.

The Libertarians’ Susan Gaztanaga (Lorenzo’s wife) got 0.76 percent of the vote, while the Greens’ Maria Allwine got 0.64 percent

As a result, each party was again required to obtain 10,000 valid signatures to regain its party status and the ballot access that affords, according to the court’s opinion.

The Libertarian Party submitted a petition on March 7, 2011, that purported to have 13,787 signatures. The Green Party submitted a petition the same day with 14,842 purported signatures.

But the state board’s review resulted in the invalidation of 8,762 Libertarian signatures and of 8,981 Green signatures, bringing the totals to 5,025 and 5,861, respectively, well short of the necessary 10,000.

Both parties appealed to the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, where retired Judge Eugene M. Lerner ruled in their favor on both questions — the validation and the effect of “back-up” signatures.

The Board of Elections appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, but the top court stepped in to take the case. It heard argument on March 2 and issued its opinion on Monday.

“Fortunately, they haven’t changed anything, so we’re good to go for this next round of petitions.”

Linda H. Lamone

State Board of Elections

GREENE

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Maryland State Board of Elections v. Libertarian Party of Maryland et al., CoA No. 79, Sept. Term 2011. Reported. Opinion by Greene, J. Argued March 2, 2012. Filed May 21, 2012.

Issue:

Did the Board of Elections properly invalidate petition signatures that did not match the signers’ voter-registration names or were duplicate signatures?

Holding:

Yes; the board’s invalidation of the signatures was proper under Maryland’s Election Law Article.

Counsel:

Matthew J. Fader for appellant; Mark A. Grannis for appellee.

RecordFax # 12-0521-21 (38 pages)