The number of valid signatures collected on petitions to decriminalize marijuana in Wichita is too close to call, the county’s election chief said Friday.
A petition organizer said backers are in a waiting mode right now, but if they come up short, they could challenge whether proof-of-citizenship requirements have unduly delayed new and reregistered voters who signed the petition.
Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman said Friday that her office will be rechecking about 3,500 signatures to determine whether the people who signed are in fact registered voters who can legally sign the petition to put the measure on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.
Lehman would not release the number of signatures that have been verified so far.
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But she did say that slightly more than 6,500 signatures in total were submitted and that the number verified as valid so far is “very close” to the 2,928 voters that petitioners need to force city action on their measure.
Lehman said that when counters came across signatures that were not immediately verifiable, they set them aside for further review.
Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be an issue, because most petitions aren’t that close, she said.
She said her staff will come in over the weekend to work on counting, but also must prepare for Tuesday’s state and county primary election.
“It’s not going to be done tonight and it might not even be done by Tuesday,” Lehman said late Friday.
Janice Bradley, a petition organizer associated with the Peace and Social Justice Center, said her group is waiting for the final outcome.
They were mildly surprised at the total number of signatures they had gathered, which they’d originally estimated at approximately 5,800, she said.
“I’m optimistic,” Bradley said, adding that Lehman had told her she had received a new batch of completed registrations from the Secretary of State’s office while the count was underway.
“If it’s that close, I’d kind of like to see some of those results,” she said.
Expecting a decision from the election commissioner one way or another by Friday, the City Council had been scheduled on Tuesday to consider its options on the petition. If there are enough valid signatures, the city will have three options:
• Approve the proposed ordinance outright and add it to the municipal code.
• Put the measure to a vote of the electorate.
• Legally challenge the wording of the petition.
City legal and administrative staff have raised questions about whether the ballot question is properly worded.
But some City Council members have said they’d be reluctant to deny the public the right to vote if there are enough signatures. They have raised the possibility of working with organizers to redraft the measure and put it on the ballot as a council initiative.
If it passes, the ballot measure would downgrade marijuana and paraphernalia possession in the city code from a criminal misdemeanor to a minor civil offense like a building code violation.
It also would set a civil fine of $25 as the maximum penalty that the city could levy in simple possession cases.
While it would not legalize marijuana – the drug would still be forbidden by state and federal law – petition organizers say they think it would prompt police to handle minor violations without making arrests.
One of the driving arguments for the measure is that small-time pot arrests are creating thousands of criminal files, especially on black residents, that can close off educational and job opportunities.
Wichita officers make about 1,800 to 1,900 marijuana arrests a year, according to city records the petitioners obtained through the Kansas Open Records Act.
The records show that 30 to 40 percent of those arrested are black, although black people make up only 11.5 percent of the city’s population. A national study by the American Civil Liberties Union found similar overall rates of marijuana usage among teens and adults; 14 percent for black people and 12 percent for white people.
Petitioners also say it would send a strong message to the Capitol in Topeka if the state’s largest city voted to decriminalize.
Rep. Gail Finney, a Wichita Democrat who has undergone chemotherapy for lupus, has attempted unsuccessfully for years to get marijuana legalized for medicinal use. Finney supports the petition drive.