Maryland's highest court to decide fate of ballot initiatives

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Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye

Two ballot initiatives in Maryland hinge on whether the state's highest court thinks the process of collecting voters' signatures was too easily defrauded.

The Court of Appeals heard arguments in both cases Thursday and are expected to hand down opinions in the coming weeks.

One measure challenges the congressional districts that state lawmakers passed in October. Opponents say the map was gerrymandered to help elect more Democrats to Congress.

To get the map issue on the ballot, opponents needed 55,736 valid voter signatures, and the Board of Elections certified 59,201. However, the Maryland Democratic Party has challenged more than 14,000 of them in arguments rejected by the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

Democrats are now challenging 7,578 signatures on the basis that voters' identifying information was filled out for them by a computer program on MDPetitions.com, used to collect the signatures.

With personal information available online, it would be easy to find someone else's ZIP code and birthdate and let the computer program do the rest, argued Joseph Sandler, an attorney for the challengers. "There's no safeguards here whatsoever."

At least 14,254 voters -- including some who used MDPetitions.com -- effectively certified their own signatures by signing as both a voter and the person who circulates the petition, argued Jonathan Shurberg, another attorney for the challengers.

Under Maryland law, a petition's collector is required to sign an affidavit certifying that the signatures were collected legally. Allowing one person to sign as both a voter and a circulator would make commiting fraud easier, Shurberg said.

But attorneys for the Board of Elections argued that both the online system and being able to certify your own signature make the process more accessible.

Signatures on a petition could be just as easily faked if they were handwritten using names from a phone book, argued attorney Julia Bernhardt, and there are no guarantees that a signature collector is better able than a signer to certify that the information on the petition is accurate.

"The whole petition process relies on people not wanting to commit crimes," said Paul Orfanedes, attorney for the Board of Elections.

The second ballot initiative, aimed at Montgomery County voters, would decide whether to restore the Fraternal Order of Police's right to "effects bargaining," or the ability to bargain almost any management decision, a right stripped by county lawmakers last summer.

Though the county Board of Elections certified 34,828 signatures -- 4,594 more than the union needed -- the Montgomery County Circuit Court tossed out 4,673 signatures after circulators put the wrong ZIP codes on the affidavits certifying them.

A minor error by a circulator should not be a reason to disenfranchise thousands of voters, argued Francis Collins, attorney for the FOP.

But Shurberg, who also represented the county, argued that a petition with a false affidavit may as well have no affidavit.

"It's a statement under oath that is not true."

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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Rachel Baye

Staff Writer - Education
The Washington Examiner