With one referendum already certified for the general election, and signatures being collected on two other potential ballot questions, GOP lawmakers say the strategy could become even more commonplace in the future.
Political observers, however, say such measures do little to drive voter turnout and the party could run out of money for such efforts quickly if the upcoming referendums go down to defeat at the polls.
The most recent attempt to put a question on the ballot kicked off Tuesday, when Republicans and some Democrats came together to push for a referendum to repeal the congressional redistricting map drawn by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and approved by the General Assembly in October.
Voters likely will decide in November whether to repeal the Maryland Dream Act, which would allow some illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition.
Petitioners also are collecting signatures to repeal the same-sex marriage bill that was signed by O’Malley on March 1.
Only 18 bills passed by the General Assembly have been put to a possible veto by voters since the power of referendum was added to the Maryland Constitution in 1915.
The last ballot question in Maryland was in 1992, when the state’s abortion law, which codified the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, was affirmed by voters, 62 percent to 38 percent.
Despite the 20-year gap, Republican leaders say the possible ballot measures will invigorate voters.
“I actually think we should do more [voter referendums],” said state GOP Chairman Alexander X. Mooney. “This is going to have to be part of the democratic process in Maryland in the future. I would hope that when these petitions are successful, liberal Democrats will stop going too far.”
Proponents need to collect 55,736 signatures before the end of June for a measure to be included on the November ballot.
The length of November’s ballot likely will be an anomaly in Maryland, with three possible ballot questions, one certified constitutional amendment and four other constitutional amendments winding their way through the chambers now. Local referendums and initiatives and charter amendments also are possible in several counties, said Donna Duncan, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach said it was unfortunate the congressional maps were the subject of a petition drive.
“We already have the maps in place, and people are voting on these maps as we speak,” he said. “I think it’s sort of like putting a fence up after the horses have run from the barn.”
He does think the ballot question on the Dream Act and possibly same-sex marriage will motivate voters to head to the polls.
“People go to vote against something, rather than for something,” Miller said. “I think it’s going to be a large turnout.”
Former Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis said turnout always increases as the level of partisanship rises. The last time Maryland saw more than one ballot measure was in 1961, and one of the issues was the congressional district map, which was overturned by two-thirds of voters.
The number of petition attempts this year “does reflect the more contentious political environment we see across the country right now,” Willis said. “Everything is contested.”
As of Tuesday, 79 ballot measures were certified across the country for the 2012 general election, according to BallotPedia.
Jennie Drage Bowser, who tracks ballot measures nationwide for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said it’s too early to analyze any trends in ballot issues for November. Bowser noted four states — Alabama, Florida, Montana and Wyoming — will consider legislative proposals that attempt to block the Affordable Care Act (Ala., Fla., Mont. and Wyo.); three states — Colorado, Montana and Washington — will vote on changes to state regulations governing marijuana use; two — Florida and Montana — will vote on limits to abortion services; legalizing same-sex marriage will be on the ballot in Maine, and banning it will be on the ballot in Minnesota and North Carolina.
“What we see are some extremely conservative measures coming out in some states,” said Justine Sarver, executive director of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy in Washington, D.C.
Even so, the issue that’s most likely to draw voters is the presidential election.
“We don’t have data that shows these measures invigorate turnout. It will be the presidential elections, and then the voters will be faced with these questions,” Sarver said.
Willis said the big test for ballot-question proponents will be getting voters from the top of the ticket through to the bottom. In every election, voters start to “drop off” after they vote for the highest-level race.
In the past 30 years, the percentage of registered voters in Maryland casting ballots in presidential elections has ranged from 70 percent in 1996 to 81 percent in 1992, Willis said.
He does not think the referendum questions will pull more voters to the polls.
“These acts are not going to take this up to 90 percent or even 85 percent,” he said.
Mooney expressed concern about the sustainability of petition efforts. The party got a $1 million commitment from the National Organization for Marriage and money from several other groups for the effort to overturn same-sex marriage.
Fundraising for other efforts hasn’t been secured yet, Mooney said, calling the redistricting petition “more of a grass-roots effort.”
Still, he wouldn’t close the door to even more ballot questions for 2012.
There’s more than a week left in the 2012 session, Mooney said, “there might still be other things to petition.”