Monday, February 18, 2013

MD Assembly to Consider the Voter Irrelevance Act

The Maryland General Assembly's disdain for the voters is on full display with the introduction of a bill that would essentially end the right of the people to petition a law to referendum.

SB706 would change the criteria to bring legislation to referendum by increasing the number of necessary votes from 3% of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election to 5% of the total number of registered voters the day the bill was passed. 
The change to the petition process should be named the Voter Irrelevance Act. Much like Republicans in TX and NC, Maryland Democrats have used their majority power to strip away nearly all checks on their power by the voters. They've used legislative redistricting to gerrymander the state inflate their numbers in the House and Senate well beyond what would be expected based on them share of the vote Democrats and Republicans receive in the state.

Now they want to dramatically alter the petition/referendum process. Personally and professionally, I do not like referenda or direct democracy. We elect representatives to exercise their judgment, subject to our approval or disapproval come election day. But when a majority party manipulates the process to the point that elections have become meaningless (and that's what gerrymandering does) petition and referendum become one of the only means left to the public to check power. And that's why the Assembly is looking to take that last remaining check away.

Under existing law, a petition challenge to a law must gather signatures equal to 3% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. About 1.7 million votes were cast in the 2010 election so that means 56,000 signatures for any petition after the 2010 election and before the 2014 election. The new law would require signatures equal to 5% of all registered voters in the state at the time the bill was passed. There were 3.4 million voters in MD in April of 2010, so instead of 56,000 signatures the new requirement would be 177,000 signatures - triple amount of signatures. That's roughly 70,000 more signatures than the number of Marylanders who signed the petition to bring the Marriage Equality legislation to the ballot (the concept of holding a referendum to decide a question of basic civil rights is especially offensive to me, but it's allowed under Maryland law). The Marriage Equality challenge was an incredibly high profile piece of legislation. That it likely would have failed the new 5% of all registered voters standard suggests that few if any laws would ever be successfully petitioned to referendum - which is precisely the point of the proposed law.

Keep in mind, there have only been 4 succesful petition efforts in the last 30 years. True, 3 of them were in the last 2 years and appeared on the 2012 ballot, but the voters upheld each of the laws. It's unlikely, after that round of losses, that we're going to see another ballot with so many challenges. There's simply no need to make it even harder for the people to petition a bill to referendum.

The new requirement is really just another example of the Assembly's attempt to make voters irrelevant. Consider, the state constitution calls for a vote on a constitutional convention every 20 years. In 1930, 1950, and 2010 the call for a convention received majority support. But the General Assembly refused to call a convention.  Article XIV of the state constitution reads "It shall be the duty of the General Assembly to provide by Law for taking, at the general election to be held in the year nineteen hundred and seventy, and every twenty years thereafter, the sense of the People in regard to calling a Convention for altering this Constitution; and if a majority of voters at such election or elections shall vote for a Convention, the General Assembly, at its next session, shall provide by Law for the assembling of such convention, and for the election of Delegates thereto." In order to prevent a convention that may threaten their power, Assembly Democrats have relied on a disingenuous interpretation of the constitutional language. They have argued that the constitutional convention question must receive majority support from all folks who voted on election day, not just those who voted on the specific question of holding a convention. In effect, folks who don't vote are counted as no votes. In 2010, a majority of folks voting on the convention question voted to hold a convention, but because several thousand people didn't vote on the issue, it fell short of a majority of all voters who participated in the election.

Refusal to accept the judgment of the people on the question of a constitutional convention wouldn't be so bad, if not for the fact that the Assembly refuses to consistently apply it's majority of all voters standard. Article XIX of the MD constitution makes clear that gambling can not be expanded in the state unless "approval is granted through a referendum, authorized by an act of the General Assembly, in a general election by a majority of the qualified voters in the State." The language is clear - a gambling expansion requires approval by a majority of all registered voters. But the assembly ignored that requirement in November and declared that casino gambling needed merely a majority of those voting on that specific questions. The Attorney General's office happily complied with that determination (just as it has agreed with the more strict requirement for calling conventions).

The reason for the hypocrisy is clear, if you simply want to have a check on the Assembly's power by petitioning a law to referendum or by voting for a constitutional convention then the Assembly sets the bar impossibly high. But if you are a multi-billion dollar special interest group - like the gambling industry - the Assembly sets the bar very low.

That the Assembly is out to erect yet another barrier to the peoples ability to serve as a check on the power of the Assembly is not surprising, but it's still quite a sad thing to observe...

** In an earlier version of this post I lumped HB493,the Referendum Integrity Act, in with SB796. I regret the error. HB 493 would not curtail the right to petition, rather it would better guard against fraud.