Court OKs messy signatures on petitions
In a ruling sure to be welcomed by Marylanders with sloppy pensmanship, the Court of Appeals has decided that petition signatures need not be legible to be valid.
"We hold that a signature on a petition for referendum is but one component of the voter's identity that is to be considered in the validation process," the majority opinion of state's highest court says. "... An illegible signature, on its own, does not preclude validation."
The 5-to-2 ruling, reported this morning, has an immediate impact on two political parties. The Green Party and Libertarian Party each failed to win the minimum 1 percent of votes in the most recent gubernatorial election required of official parties. Each has petitioned the state to remain viable.
By law, those petitions must include the signatures of at least 10,000 registered voters. The Greens submitted 14,000 signatures, and the Libertarians put forward 12,000, according to the State Board of Elections.
Elections officials were in the process of validating signatures when today's ruling was handed down. Officials now must start over, said Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance for the Maryland State Board of Elections.
The ruling does not appear to undo any referendum efforts previously rejected by state or local elections boards.
Elections officials were "digesting" today's ruling and believed they would have to alter their petitions policies to reflect that ineligible signatures are OK if they accompany valid printed contact information supplied by a registered voter.
Del. Jon S. Cardin, chairman of the election law subcommittee of House Ways and Means panel, said Tuesday's ruling makes the referendum requirements "more reasonable."
He compared the issue to a doctor's prescription: If the doctor's ID code and contact information are correct, it doesn't matter if the signature is chicken scratch.
At issue in the case was a petition submitted in August by Montgomery County volunteer firefighters, who sought to roll back a new emergency medical services transportation fee levied by the county.
The firefighters submitted a petition containing 33,740 signatures, but only 13,021 were deemed acceptable by the county Board of Elections, meaning the petition failed to meet the requirements to make it onto the fall ballot.
However, the board of elections conceded in court that if signature legibility was not an issue, the firefighters met the petition requirements.
This fall, in an emergency ruling, the Court of Appeals, gave the ballot question the go-ahead, overturning the board of elections' and a lower court's ruling that it had not met the petition requirements. County voters rejected the transportation fee in the November election.
Left unchanged by today's ruling was the tricky matter of middle initials. State law requires someone who signs a petition to the name he or she used when registering to vote.
The example used in state election board guidelines is John Henry Smith. If Smith signs a petition, he would have to indicate that his name is John Henry Smith, J. Henry Smith or John H. Smith to be counted as valid. He could not use John Smith or J.H. Smith.
Some signature collectors have complained that the requirement is too restrictive because people don't always remember how precisely they registered to vote. But Cardin said today that petition rules are "absolutely effective enough."
The Baltimore County Democrat said no one has complained to the election law subcommittee about the registration name issue.
"There's always room for improvement," he said. "There are still open questions that we should consider taking up."
-- The Sun's Larry Carson contributed.