Referendum Changes Still Awaiting Action in House Committee

By Glynis Kazanjian,

The chairman of the election law subcommittee handling controversial changes to the referendum and petition process said Tuesday that the bill isn’t dead, despite the fact that it awaits action by the subcommittee and would need numerous amendments to make it palatable to stakeholders.

But with just 13 days left in the 90-day session, Election Law Subcommittee Chairman Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, conceded, “The chances of it moving have decreased.”

“No action has been taken,” Cardin said in a phone interview. “We’ve been trying to work with all of the different stakeholders to come up with something that we could all work with.”

The bill, HB 493, has been criticized as an attempt at “voter suppression” for applying stricter standards to the collection of signatures and other aspects of petition drives.

Cardin said there still is a chance the bill could move, and after numerous discussions with all interested parties, he said the legislation would be smaller, less controversial and more bipartisan.

Senate committee waiting on the House

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City, chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee and sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, SB673, said the committee was “waiting on the House.”

“That’s a good government bill,” Conway said. “If they don’t send us something, we may send them something.”

The legislation was introduced as a reaction to last year’s three petition drives that sought to overturn laws passed by the legislature on same-sex marriage, immigrant college tuition and congressional redistricting.

It has been harshly criticized for its name — The Referendum Integrity Act — and the leader of the Legislative Black Caucus called it an attempt at voter suppression.

In its current form, the legislation opens the door for thousands of referendum petition signatures to be disqualified through numerous administrative guidelines and stipulations.

Campaign finance disclosure required

The bill also calls for campaign finance entities to be set up for each petitioned bill, requires training for petition circulators and prohibits petition collectors from being paid based on the number of signatures collected.

A tailored version of the bill, according to one stakeholder, would eliminate many of the petition signature disqualifiers and keep the transparency components of the bill.

“Common Cause Maryland believes that transparency in any political spending is critically important, so we do support the bill moving forward that contains the financial reporting element,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “It would [also] be imperative that the amendments eliminate the restrictions on petitioning.”

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