Despite being 47 registered voters short of bringing a petition to decriminalize marijuana to the ballot, supporters are pushing on.
Interim City Attorney Sharon Dickgrafe told the Wichita City Council on Tuesday that it could not legally put the issue on the November ballot based on the petition.
However, the council voted for city staff to work with the petitioners to tweak the language of a ballot petition that could be used in the future, presumably for a vote in the spring when city elections are held.
Supporters say they plan to fight the county election office on the signature count that was done last week during the primaries and hope to still meet the county deadline later this month to get the issue on the November ballot, which generally has a higher voter turnout than the spring elections.
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Esau Freeman, one of the leaders of the petition initiative, said two pages of signatures that were submitted to the county were missing from the official count. In all, 2,928 signatures are needed to put the issue on the ballot.
One of the missing pages included the signature of his wife, he said. He also said petition gatherers were not allowed to observe the counting by the Sedgwick County election office.
“(Secretary of State) Kris Kobach says we have open and fair elections, but I think the first case of voter fraud has been perpetrated by the Sedgwick County election office,” Freeman said.
Tabitha Lehman, the Sedgwick County Election Commissioner, said only one page was missed when signatures were verified. The election office scanned the petition pages into a computer file and used the scanned versions to determine which signatures belonged to registered voters.
One page stuck to the back of another page during the scan, Lehman said. The missing page contained 11 signatures, she said, which was not enough to change the outcome.
Council member James Clendenin reminded supporters of the marijuana petition at the meeting that the Sedgwick County Commission, which oversees the election office, meets Wednesday.
If the effort of verifying signatures on the current petition fails with the county, the group can raise funds to mail all of the people who signed the petition and ask them to sign a second petition, Freeman said. However, it would be too late to get the question on the November ballot.
During a public comment period at the meeting, several people spoke in favor of the council putting the issue on the ballot of its own accord, not as a ballot petition, just as it did with the proposed 1-cent sales tax.
The petitioners’ initiative would change simple possession of marijuana and paraphernalia from a criminal offense to a minor civil violation like a building code infraction. It also would set the maximum penalty at $25, down from the current maximum of $2,500 and a year in jail.
Violations could still be prosecuted under state and federal law, but organizers say it would become less likely that city police would bother to arrest small-time users.
Russell Fox, a political science professor at Friends University, urged the council to not allow concerns of state and federal challenges to the proposed ordinance stand in the way of putting the issue on the ballot.
Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Winn, who won 37 percent of the vote against Gov. Sam Brownback in last week’s primary, also spoke to the council, saying, “We work for the people. … The people’s will is very clear” on putting the issue to a vote.
State Rep. Carolyn Bridges, a Democrat for the 83rd District, also told the council she was interested from the state level in how Wichitans would vote on decriminalizing marijuana.
“Some of us here are trying to achieve what you are trying to achieve. Please don’t lose sight of that,” council member Janet Miller told the marijuana petition supporters at Tuesday’s meeting.
Contributing: Dion Lefler of The Eagle