Internet stars in effort to repeal tuition breaks for illegal immigrants
Opponents of Maryland’s plan to offer in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants are optimistic that they can stop the measure in its tracks. (Read the full Sun story here.)
A Republican-led petition drive to repeal the bill approved last month by the Democrat-led General Assembly began in earnest last week and has been welcomed enthusiastically by voters across the state, organizers say.
Organizers say they have combined the traditional boots-on-the-ground with a sophisticated website, mdpetitions.com, to overcome the challenges of collecting so many signatures in such a short time. (Casa de Maryland's position in favor of the measure can be found here.)
"First, I want to thank Al Gore for inventing the Internet," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a key petition drive organizer. "It’s playing a major role, and we have already had a tremendous number of hits."
The site links with Maryland’s voter registration database to automatically fill in the correct name and address of a petition signer, who then may print out, sign and date the form and mail it to the organizers. The mailing address is provided on a printed page that can be folded into an envelope.
McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, said the Internet also makes it easier for people to volunteer to circulate the petition because all of the materials can be printed out from the site, which also includes talking points. An example: "Many Marylanders cannot afford to send their own children to college, and yet this bill uses their tax dollars to pay for illegals to go to college."
Del. Neil C. Parrott, who is leading the repeal drive, said he conceived the idea for the site after meeting in February with the Board of Elections in preparation for a petition effort to overturn a same-sex marriage law that was expected to pass this year (It didn’t).
"I just wanted to make it easy and help people avoid pitfalls," said Parrott, a Washington County Republican.
He said he paid $2,000 of his own money to a web site development company, which he declined to identify. He is seeking donations to recover the cost. Parrott said the petition drive is “entirely grassroots” and has not tapped any national groups for support.
To succeed, they will have to collect 55,736 signatures — the equivalent of 3 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election — by June 30. That would suspend the measure until November 2012, when voters would decide its fate in a referendum.
The first batch of more than 18,500 signatures is due by the end of this month.
"We’re off to a fantastic start," Parrott said. He would not say how many signatures have already been collected, but said he passed around the petition last week at a Washington Nationals baseball game and couldn’t believe how excited Marylanders were to sign on.
"You just start to explain the issue and a lot of people say, ‘Give me the form. I want to sign it right now.’"
Advocates for immigrants say they are taking a wait-and-see approach to the petition drive.
"Our strategy is to wait and get through the May deadline and see if they get anywhere close," said Kim Propeack, director of community organizing and political action for CASA de Maryland. She said it would be "a huge endeavor" to reach the signature requirement.
"We continue to believe that a majority of Marylanders support the bill, especially if it is accurately described," she said.
Noting that there are rules against committing fraud to obtain signatures, Propeack said Casa de Maryland has consulted with lawyers in case the petition is certified and the group decides to challenge it.
Maryland gives voters the opportunity to petition for the final say on most new laws. However, rules for petition drives are strict: Opponents have just a few months to gather tens of thousands of signatures, and to be counted, each must match or nearly match the exact name as it appears on the signer’s voter registration card.
The rejection rate is so high that the State Board of Elections recommends petitioners submit at least 30 percent more signatures than the required number, to account for those that will be deemed invalid.
Successful statewide petition efforts in Maryland are relatively rare.