A proposed voter initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in Oklahoma may be blocked from the general election ballot despite receiving enough petition signatures to qualify for the November election, representatives of the Oklahoma legalization campaign revealed this week. State officials said on Monday that the group Oklahomans for Sensible Marijuana Laws (OSML) had collected enough signatures to qualify for the November election, but the certification may have come too late for the proposal to be included on the ballot.
The OSML initiative, known as State Question 820, would legalize marijuana for use by adults and create a system to regulate and tax commercial cannabis cultivation and sales. Adults 21 and older would be permitted to possess and purchase up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to six mature and six immature cannabis plants at home. On July 5, OSML announced it had submitted petitions for the Oklahoma legalization initiative containing more than 164,000 signatures, far more than the nearly 95,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot. On Monday, the Oklahoma secretary of state’s office certified that 117,257 signatures, exceeding the minimum threshold by more than 20,000 signatures.
The certification will next be reviewed by the Oklahoma Supreme Court to determine if the verification process meets state requirements. The court review is followed by a 10-day period for opponents to file challenges to the signature verification, after which the governor can formally call for the question to be added to the ballot. But this week, OSML campaign director Michelle Tilley said that a delay in counting the signatures may mean final verification may come after an August 26 deadline set by state election officials.
“The count has to be certified by the court and we have to have a ten-day publication period in the newspaper,” Tilley told reporters. “Unfortunately, that will all be completed just a few days after August 26.”
In June, Oklahoma Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax sent a letter to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt that the statutory deadline to certify the ballot question for the November general election is August 29. However, he added that the election board actually needed the governor’s proclamation by August 26.
“This ‘practical deadline’ ensures that county election boards have time to prepare ballots to meet the 45-day deadline to send absentee ballots to military voters,” Ziriax wrote in a June letter.
Oklahoma Legalization Campaign Challenging State Deadline
OSML is challenging the early deadline, saying that it could keep SQ 820 from the ballot. In a filing with the state Supreme Court, the OSML Oklahoma legalization campaign said the August 26 deadline specified by the election board was an “artificial ‘practical’ deadline only; it is not one mandated by law” and asked that voters be allowed to decide on SQ 820 in November.
“And where, as here, the Election Board has a plain legal duty to submit a question to a vote at the ‘next general election,’ assertions of inconvenience or expense are no excuse for a failure to comply — especially where, as here, the time crunch creating the inconvenience and expense is of the government’s own making.”
Previously, signatures on petitions were validated by the state. But last year, the state implemented a new signature verification and contracted with a third-party vendor, Western Petition Systems, to verify the signatures, a process that took 48 days from the time the petitions were submitted. Jeffrey Cartmell, an attorney with the secretary of state’s office, said the new verification process counted registered voters for the first time.
“This new process differs significantly from the historical practice of merely counting the number of individuals who signed the petition without regard for their voter registration status,” Cartmell said in a statement. “Our office has been in constant communication with the proponents and we look forward to working with them and other interested parties as we continue to improve this new process.”
But campaign officials say the process took much longer than it should have and will unfairly block SQ 802 from the November ballot.
“This administrative delay was both unexpected and inexplicable,” OSML said in its court filing quoted by Oklahoma Watch. “Although billed as more ‘modern’ and ‘efficient,’ the new electronic process was anything but: it ended up taking more than twice as long as the secretary’s hand count in prior years.”
“The last petition Oklahomans voted on took 17 days to count 313,000 signatures,” Tilley said in a press release. “In contrast, we submitted half that amount and it has taken three times as long. This delay means the election board may not receive the green light to print the ballot in time for voters to vote on it in November.”
Oklahoma state Rep. Andy Fugate has called on the Stitt administration to act quickly to include SQ 802 on the November ballot, noting the general election will have the largest voter turnout.
“Oklahoma law sets demanding deadlines for signature collection on ballot initiatives,” Fugate said. “Sadly, it lacks similar deadlines for the Secretary of State to validate those signatures. This process has already taken longer than other recent state question initiatives.”