Petitioning for an Easier Referendum Law
Activists say it's easier to meet the state's standards for referendums than to petition a county law to the ballot.
A group of county activists wants to make it easier to petition county laws to the ballot and, ironically enough, the group's effort begins with a petition.
Ann Miller, a Republican activist, is one of a number of volunteers who spent election day collecting signatures on a petition to change the Baltimore County Charter.
If successful, the change to the County Charter would mean that voters seeking to challenge a law by referendum in the future would need to collect the signatures of less than 8,700 registered county voters to get an issue on the ballot.
Miller and volunteers working with her are learning first-hand the difficulties in petitioning a county law to referendum as they attempt to collect enough signatures to overturn a recently passed transgender anti-discrimination law.
No law passed by the Baltimore County Council has ever been petitioned to referendum since it moved to home rule in the mid-1950s.
Miller and others say that's because requirements in the County Charter are too strict.
"Right now, at 10 percent, it's nearly impossible to petition a law to referendum," said Miller.
The County Charter requires petitioners to collect the signatures of registered county voters equal to 10 percent of the total number of votes cast in the county in the most recent gubernatorial election. That's 28,826 verified signatures, based on the 2010 election.
Petitioners can buy some extra time if they can collect 9,513 valid signatures in 30 days. The Board of Elections usually recommends that petitioners collect twice the required signatures in order to overcome typical rejection rates.
The balance of the signatures would be due in another 30 days.
By contrast, state laws can be petitioned to the ballot by collecting signatures equal to 3 percent of the total votes cast statewide for governor—nearly 56,000 signatures based on the 2010 election.
Al Nalley, a Catonsville resident who is helping spearhead the drive to change the County Charter, said the group first approached several council members looking for support for a bill to change existing law. In the end, the support wasn't there.
"We decided to drop it and go with a petition drive," said Nalley.
Unlike some states, there is no ability to pass laws through ballot initiatives in Baltimore County. Voters can only attempt to strike down laws passed by the council.
Voters can, however, change portions of the charter by petitioning it to the ballot—a process that takes about 10,000 signatures of registered county voters.
County Attorney Michael Field said the process is completely legal and has been done successfully—most recently in 2002 and 2010—by unions seeking collective bargaining rights.
"It's really a problem because there is so little time to collect the signatures," said White Campbell, who last fall helped spearhead an unsuccessful attempt to petition the County Council redistricting plan to the ballot.
"As long as the law stays the way it is, petitioning a bill to referendum will be a difficult job," said White Campbell.