Richard Winger of Ballot Access News reports that Maryland Senate Bill 1032, a bill to straighten out one of the stranger wrinkles of Maryland’s elections laws, will get a hearing next week before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. The text is available here or here, but really it’s very simple: Current law automatically renews a political party’s official recognition (and the ballot access that goes with it) if more than 1% of the state’s registered voters choose to affiliate with that party. SB 1032 would replace the 1% threshold (which equates to about 37,084 voters right now) with a threshold of 10,000.
This is great news, and not only for smaller or newer political parties. SB 1032 is also great news for Maryland voters who will enjoy more choice at the polls, and for Maryland taxpayers who will no longer have to pay for the enormous waste of state resources that our current election law requires.
To understand the importance of SB 1032, it helps to know what happens to a recognized political party that fails to reach the 1% threshold at the end of any four-year election cycle. That party can regain its official recognition by filing a petition signed by 10,000 registered voters, regardless of party affiliation. Collecting 10,000 signatures is a lot harder than it sounds, because state law requires voters to print and sign their names in very specific ways that often do not match the signatures or names they use in daily life. For example, “Martin O’Malley” on a petition would not qualify as a valid signature; it would need to be “Martin H. O’Malley,” even though the Governor doesn’t even need to use that middle initial when he signs legislation. That and other traps for the unwary mean that, in practice, a small political party may need to spend $50,000 to collect enough “raw” signatures to be sure that at least 10,000 will be deemed valid. And state and local elections officials don’t particularly enjoy flyspecking the petitions for compliance, which of course they do at substantial cost to the taxpayers.
But apart from the waste of time and expense, consider the situation of, well, the Libertarian Party of Maryland, with 13,313 registered voters as of January 31, 2014. Under current law, because we have fewer than 37,084 registered Libertarian voters, we would need to collect signatures from 10,000 registered voters who support the Libertarian Party’s right to exist. But the state’s own records already show that 13,313 support our right to exist so much that they themselves registered as Libertarians. Asking us to circulate a petition to prove that we have the support of at least 10,000 voters is just silly when the state can press a button and print out a list of 13,313 registered voters who have already told the state they support us. And because the 10,000 signatures can come from voters of any party affiliation or no affiliation at all, a petition signed by 10,000 voters of whom relatively few will be Libertarians actually demonstrates far less political support within the state than our 10,000 registered voters do. Requiring the petition under these circumstances isn’t just wasteful and pointless; it’s a wasteful and pointless obstacle to voting rights. It’s the kind of wasteful and pointless obstacle that might well be unconstitutional.
(By the way, if you’re wondering who represents you in the General Assembly, you can find out here.)