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In their infinite wisdom, the founding fathers foresaw the need for the citizens of a representative democracy to have a means for redressing their grievances. Although elected by a majority, members of a governing body might hold views on specific issues that are inconsistent with the majority of the electorate, thus the right to petition was included in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Without this right, citizens who are in a political minority have no recourse for addressing their grievances. Sadly, the Maryland General Assembly is entertaining two bills, SB 673 The Referendum Integrity Act, and SB 706 A constitutional amendment which will increase the number of signatures required for a ballot referendum by 400 percent. These are both controversial bills , which would greatly impede the citizen’s ability to exercise their constitutional rights. Governor Martin O’Malley cynically called the referendum process “too easy”, after calling for more restrictions on the referendum process. O’Malley and the Maryland Democratic monopoly won on all the ballot initiatives last November. Granted, there was considerable controversy regarding the several ballot initiatives as well as the signature petitions for getting a third party U.S. Senate candidate on the ballot. As unpleasant as these issues were, it’s questionable if they warrant placing insurmountable hurdles in front of a constitutionally guaranteed right.
In Montgomery County’s recent history, there have only been two instances, of victories for conservative causes and both were achieved through the right to petition. The first is the “Ficker Amendment” which prohibits the Montgomery County Council from increasing property taxes above the inflation index without a unanimous vote. The political reality of one-party Democratic control of the county however, dictates that even though the public agreed with the policy, the Ficker Amendment will never be triggered. The reality is that party line voters continually re-elect representatives that they don’t necessarily agree with, and the petition system serves as a safeguard to protect them from their own poor judgement!
The second instance of a successful petition campaign dealt with striking down a Montgomery County Council plan for charging fees for using county EMT ambulance services . Even in the face of unethical voter intimidation tactics on the part of the county government the voters spoke clearly and upheld the initiatives thus striking down the fees, or did they? Just two years after losing a vicious ballot fight over ambulance fees, the Democratic County Executive and County Council decided to implement the fees anyway. They bribed the only opposition group willing to take them to court by offering them the private use of county vehicles. The system almost worked here. The only thing preventing Montgomery County from being a textbook example of democracy in action is the absence of a balanced political electorate and a lack of adherence to the will of the voters on the part of it’s elected officials.
Granted, not every issue deserves to be validated by appearing on our election ballots, but at the same time, no government instituted impediments should be so great as to shut the voices of the people out of the process. Reactionary legislation that limits our rights as citizens is never a good idea.
Tags: ballot initiatives, first amendment, petition Martin O'Malley, Referendum
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