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Petition website under fire

A Republican lawmaker’s business venture, which successfully helped to petition three state laws to referendum over the last year, is being accused of campaign finance violations by the Maryland Democratic Party.

In an email sent Friday, Democrats said MDPetitions.com was in violation of campaign finance laws because it sent out a mailer urging a “no” vote on several laws subject to voter approval on Nov. 6 without registering as a ballot issue committee with the Maryland State Board of Elections.

The website, founded by Del. Neil C. Parrott, a Washington County Republican, successfully delivered enough signatures to force three laws passed by the General Assembly — same-sex marriage, the Dream Act and a Congressional redistricting map — to referendum.

Voters will decide on Election Day whether to uphold those laws.

A check of state elections records shows that MDPetitions.com has registered as an independent expenditure committee, meaning it has spent more than $10,000 in an election cycle. Records show the committee was registered as of Oct. 7, but elections officials said MDPetitions.com did not actually register until Thursday.

MDPetitions.com requested the registration be made retroactive so it could report its expenditures, presumably now greater than the $10,000 threshold for disclosure, by Friday’s 11:59 p.m. deadline.

Parrott would not discuss when committee was registered, but admitted it came “toward the last minute.”

Ross K. Goldstein, deputy administrator for the state elections board, did not immediately respond to an email seeking clarification on the legality of MDPetition.com’s registration.

In a statement, Maryland Democratic Party Executive Director David Sloan said Maryland conservatives were willing to do whatever it took to stop enactment of laws passed by the state legislature, composed of a super-majority of Democrats.

“MDPetitions.com is breaking the law,” Sloan said. “This is a pattern among these Republican-led organizations in Maryland seeking to influence the outcome of a ballot measure while attempting to hide from disclosure laws.”

Parrott, chairman of the petition website, had equally harsh criticism waiting for state Democrats.

“Unfortunately, we have a party in Maryland that thinks they can be a bully party,” Parrott said. He specifically cited his website’s success in petitioning the redistricting map to referendum as a reason why Democrats were targeting his business.

“Here we have the Maryland Democrat party trying to use scare tactics, intimidation and anything really they can to prevent voters from voting on question No. 5,” Parrott said. “They intentionally drew the most gerrymandered map in the entire country. And now they’re trying to shut down anyone that would give out any kind of information.”

Donald F. Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Maryland is getting a taste of the vitriol present in other, more politically-diverse states during election season.

“It’s very new. I’ve been in state since 1986 and I’ve followed every gubernatorial election since 1990,” Norris said. “There has been nothing like this whatsoever.”

He said it was not surprising to see Democrats and Republicans fighting over campaign spending. He also said that unless the legislature attempts to change state campaign finance law, such fights are likely to continue well into the future.

Republicans are disenfranchised in Annapolis, pushed to the margins and without any real power, Norris said. The ability to easily put some issues on the ballot through Parrott’s website and other technological advances that should follow give conservatives some recourse in state politics.

“It definitely is going to be the future, and as a result, it directly impacts the Democratic control of the General Assembly and the legislation that the Democratic side will adopt,” Norris said. “It will be my guess that, in the next General Assembly session or certainly by the second, that laws will be adopted to really change and thus restrict the ability to petition legislation to the ballot.”