Is technology changing the legislative equation in Annapolis?


By Donald C. Fry

There can hardly be anyone in the state who isn’t aware of Question 7. That’s the statewide voter referendum on the Nov. 6 Maryland election ballot to ratify legislation passed during the General Assembly’s second 2012 special session to locate a slots casino in Prince George’s County and to authorize table games at all casinos in Maryland.

Because of the deluge of mass media advertising the legislation has generated, Question 7 is easily the most visible of four constitution-related questions on this year’s ballot. It is there because voter approval is required any time the General Assembly passes or revises a constitutional amendment.

Other constitutional amendments on the ballot – Questions 1 through 3 – would require Orphans Court judges in Prince George’s and Baltimore counties to be attorneys in good standing and would require Maryland elected officials to be suspended immediately upon pleading guilty or no contest to certain crimes.

But this year’s election also features three non-constitutional statewide referendum questions that are on the ballot largely due an emerging technology-driven phenomenon.

Deployment of online technology has made it easier for angry, frustrated and disenfranchised factions, or anyone with a bone to pick with lawmakers, to successfully gather enough valid signatures to put many types of legislation passed in Annapolis on the ballot for voter review.

How significant is this? In next month’s election, Maryland will have three statewide voter questions that were petitioned to referendum through online-supported grassroots campaigns. That’s one more than the number of non-constitutional statewide referendum questions that have appeared on Maryland ballots in the previous six elections combined.

In Maryland, legislative acts concerning liquor and most fiscal appropriations are not subject to voter referendum. But many other legislative actions are fair game if an amount of signatures equaling 3 percent of voters in the last election – currently about 56,000 – can be obtained on a petition.

Here is a summary of voter-petitioned questions on this year’s ballot:

Question 4: Higher education tuition (Dream Act). Voters will be asked to approve legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2011 establishing that individuals, including undocumented immigrants, are eligible to pay in-state tuition rates at community colleges and four-year colleges in Maryland under certain conditions. A number of conditions they must meet for in-state rates at community colleges include attendance for at least three years and graduation from a Maryland high school, documentation that their parents have paid and continue to pay Maryland income taxes, registration with the Selective Service System, and community college registration within four years of high school graduation.

Those earning 60 credits or an associate’s degree at a Maryland community college are eligible for a resident tuition rate at a Maryland four-year college if attending within four years of earning the credits or an associate’s degree. The time period for honorably discharged veterans to gain in-state tuition is extended from one year to four years after discharge.

Question 5: Congressional redistricting. Voters are being asked to ratify the Congressional redistricting plan enacted in the General Assembly’s 2011 special session. The plan was challenged in federal court, but ruled legal and constitutional. If voters approve this ballot question, the plan will remain intact. If defeated in the referendum, the plan will be repealed and ultimately have to be redrawn by state lawmakers, but it would remain intact for Congress’ two-year term beginning in 2013.

Question 6: Civil Marriage Protection Act. Voters are being asked to approve 2012 General Assembly legislation that allows gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license, provided they are not otherwise prohibited from marrying. Religious orders or bodies would not be required to perform, celebrate or officiate over marriages that are in violation of their beliefs. It affirms that religious faiths have exclusive control over their own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith and that religious organizations are not required “to provide goods, services or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.”

The outcome of these votes could determine whether state lawmakers will see more or less referendum questions in future elections.

Whatever the outcome in this year’s election, it’s likely that the emerging capabilities for converting online technology into constituent action will have some degree of impact on the legislative process in Maryland.

In past years, laws enacted by the General Assembly were somewhat insulated from voter referendum because of the sheer challenge of gaining the required petition signatures. Is technology changing the game in Annapolis? Possibly.

It could alter the vote-counting exercise in the state capital. Currently, the formula for getting a law passed in the General Assembly is straightforward: persuade 71 delegates and 24 senators to vote for it and gain the governor’s support to sign it.

Will emerging technology ultimately disrupt that long-time traditional legislative equation in Annapolis and force lawmakers to increasingly ask themselves: will this measure pass a statewide referendum?

Voter reaction every four years is always on the minds of lawmakers. But technology now gives advocates another way to generate a more immediate reaction to specific legislative votes. In future sessions, policy advocates and lawmakers may have to begin gauging sentiment far beyond State Circle.