The dictionary definition is “A general vote by the electorate on a single political question that has been referred to them for a direct decision.”
In more explanatory terms, when our elected representatives pass legislation that the citizens don’t agree with, our only recourse is to seek a referendum on the ballot in order to overturn it. The process for seeking a referendum is to petition it per the rules of the state or county, depending upon whether it was a state or county bill.
In Maryland, state bills can be petitioned by a signature count of at least 3% of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election, which in this election cycle is approximately 56,000 validated signatures.
Signatures must be collected and submitted to the Board of Elections according to very specific requirements and deadlines for validation. Each signature is then verified against voter registration rolls by the county in which the signer is registered to vote. If the Board of Elections certifies that enough valid signatures were collected according to the rules and in the specified timeframe, the implementation of the bill is halted until it is placed on the next general election ballot in the form of a question for a vote of the people.
Opponents to the referendum can challenge the certification in court, which has successfully blocked referendum questions in Maryland in the past. If the challenge is unsuccessful however, the question will be placed on the ballot.
The question language is developed by Maryland Legislative Services and approved by the Maryland Attorney General, and the petition sponsor has no say in the wording of the question. It is common to have disputes over the question language, which some say can be intentionally misleading.
Essentially, a referendum is the people’s check-and-balance over the legislature. It gives citizens final say over whether a controversial piece of legislation will become law. It places a democratic vote on a decision which had been made by our representative body, the legislature.
Not many of our state bills are ever taken to referendum. This year, only two were petitioned out of the nearly 1,500 bills submitted in 2012‘s regular session. It takes a huge effort and expense in a short time to petition a bill to referendum, so only the most offensive and unpopular bills are petitioned. Petitioners have to collect up to twice the required number of signatures to ensure that enough will be validated to refer the bill to the ballot. But having a viable referendum process in place is essential to a free republic. It serves as a moderator of our legislators’ actions when they know the citizens will rise up to petition radical bills. Successful petitions are an embarrassment and spanking to out-of-touch legislators who fail to represent their constituents or who cater to special interests over the best interests of the people.
Information on these state referendums can be found at www.mdpetitions.com.
There is also an active Baltimore County petition that addresses the signature requirements on the county level. Information and a copy of the petition can be downloaded at www.baltocopetitions.com.