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Referendum Resuscitation – A warm story on a cold day in Annapolis

Today, I saw the possibility of life being breathed back into referenda for the State of Maryland. I was very honored to have sat at the table with Senator Bates and County Executive Kittleman testifying in support of election law reform. This bill could give life to the defunct referendum process in Howard County. Yes, “defunct” (no longer functioning) is the right word.

15 months ago, the Howard County Board of Elections (BOE) stated that the summary language for the zoning referendum I chaired was not “fair and accurate”. This effectively killed referenda in Howard County. Why? With our zoning referendum, the BOE pre-certified the summary saying it was for the courts to decide (not the BOE!) on the sufficiency of the language. Then, we achieved what the BOE believed was unachievable – we collected nearly 7,000 signatures under difficult rules and intimidating experiences. It was only then that the BOE did a 180 and said, oh wait, we will certify the summary language, and yours is no good after all.

In the law, decisions cannot be made that are "arbitrary and capricious". The BOE decision was certainly that, yet the appeal court allowed it. Who would ever attempt another referendum under these conditions? It is a no-win situation. Yet, all this might change.

Now, the Howard County Delegation is attempting to close the gap in election law that allowed the BOE to deny our zoning referendum from going to the ballot last year. Senate Bill 193, sponsored by Senator Bates, and House Bill 284, sponsored by Delegate Flanagan (Delegate Hill also worked on this bill) require the BOE to provide clear, understandable reasons for not certifying a petition (UP FRONT!) during the pre-certification process.

What has impressed me the most is that the Howard County legislators have kindly worked with me for weeks on creating amendments to shore up this bill reforming election law, including amendments reducing the time window for the BOE to provide a response, so as to minimize the impact on signature-gathering time. Their desire to accommodate our wishes and to include our suggested amendments is deeply appreciated.

If these bills pass, they will require the BOE to provide a clear, concise, and understandable reply to certification requests and in a timely fashion. Let's hope that the long, sad history of the Board of Rejections has taken a turn in the right direction.

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