"THIS HAS NOT turned out the way anyone thought," says Bob Wolfe, chief petitioner of marijuana legalization Measure 24. "For the moment, I've turned into a voter-rights activist instead of a marijuana activist."
After spending roughly $27,000 and collecting 170,000 signatures, Measure 24 probably won't be on the ballot this fall, after the Oregon Secretary of State Elections Division disqualified so many of the campaign's signatures that the measure fell short of the 116,284 it needs to make the ballot ["Smoking the Grassroots," News, July 12].
Now Wolfe is taking the state to court, arguing that the secretary of state's many and very specific rules for petitions have the effect of disenfranchising voters.
The state's system of approving ballot measures is complex, but it's those details that can make or break which measures get on the ballot in a given year.
Wolfe's lawsuit takes aim at rules like the one stating that if a sheet of 10 signatures is misdated or improperly signed by the petitioner, the entire sheet must be tossed. More than 6,400 of his signatures were disqualified for this reason—he says some petitioners, in January, were still mistakenly signing 2011.
"They've moved from trying to prevent fraud to the realm of disenfranchising voters," says Wolfe.
The lawsuit puts the liberal marijuana reformists in strange company with conservative activists like Kevin Mannix and Bill Sizemore, who have sued the Oregon Secretary of State over signature-tossing issues in previous elections. Mannix's lawsuit in 2010 mirrors many of the pot petitioner's complaints: the elections division's "technical rules to pull entire petition sheets... go beyond the statute and punish legal voters," Mannix told the Oregonian. A judge dismissed that lawsuit shortly after it was filed.
Digging into the details on why 46 percent of the marijuana campaign's signatures were thrown out shows that, of the state's statistical sample of 5,809 signatures randomly picked from the campaign, 950 signatures were tossed because the signer was not a registered voter. Most of the rest were disqualified because voters had moved or because state employees determined the signatures did not match the person's signature in the voter registration database.
Elections Director Steve Trout notes that the signature validity rate for paid canvassers is usually much lower than volunteer canvassers' rates.
"You could infer that there's a motivation for people who are being paid to be creative with their petition circulating," says Trout. Usually, it's just a simple error on the part of petitioners or would-be voters who genuinely don't know they're not registered. But the state is actively investigating criminal charges against some paid canvassers for forgery.
Earlier this year, the Secretary of State slapped the Measure 24 campaign with a $65,000 fine for allegedly paying petitioners per signature.
"The initiative system needs strict rules, strict accountability, and strict enforcement, because without it the entire system is ripe for fraud and forgery," says Scott Moore of Our Oregon, which sponsored a kicker-reform measure that looks likely to qualify for the ballot this year.
Meanwhile, Wolfe says his campaign is going over their thousands of petition sheets page by page to see if the Secretary of State's office made any human error in throwing them out. And he promises a federal lawsuit is also in the works.