Marijuana decriminalization petition 47 signatures short, election commissioner certifies

08/08/2014 10:14 AM

08/13/2014 12:34 PM

A petition to let voters decide whether to decriminalize marijuana has fallen 47 signatures short of forcing its way onto the Wichita city ballot, the county’s election chief certified Friday.

Backers of the petition plan to challenge that count, saying some legitimate voters appeared to have been improperly excluded over registration and timing technicalities.

There also was a mathematical error that had to be corrected in the official certification document.

Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman’s initial report to the city clerk said, “The petition pages contain the signatures of 2,887 qualified electors of the City of Wichita, 47 short of the required 2,928.”

However, 2,928 minus 2,887 equals 41, not 47.

Later, Lehman turned in a corrected document changing the number of valid signatures from 2,887 to 2,881.

“It should have been a 1 instead of a 7,” she said.

The election office rejected about 3,600 signatures as invalid, Lehman said.

Backers of the petition said they’re demanding access to the petition and the counters’ notes to determine why so many signatures were found wanting.

They’re concerned that some of the signatures may have been rejected because of delays in voter registration and address changes at the election office.

They also question that some signatures didn’t make the cut based on election office workers’ judgment that the handwriting on the petition didn’t match the writing on file at the office.

Lehman acknowledged that her office doesn’t have a trained handwriting analyst. She said several workers in her office looked at the signatures that were rejected because of apparently mismatched handwriting.

Petition backers said they’ll go before the City Council on Tuesday and ask the council to put the question to voters on its own authority.

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.

Esau Freeman, one of the leaders of the petition drive, said backers have encountered bureaucratic interference since it became clear that the drive was close to succeeding.

The city law department and city manager had questioned whether the wording of the petition passed legal muster for a ballot initiative, but decided to let the count go forward.

“People in Wichita signed this in good faith,” Freeman said. “It looks like someone is going out of their way to deny the will of the people.”

He said backers are hoping for a different response from the elected officials on the council, who will have to face voters in municipal elections in a March 3 primary and April 7 general election.

If the challenges to the count fail, and the council doesn’t put it on the November ballot, supporters will recirculate their petitions in time for the city election, where it would become an issue that mayor and council candidates will have to address, Freeman said.

At their regular Friday afternoon agenda meeting, council members were seeking answers to what they can do. Several seemed inclined to let people vote if they can find a way to do it.

“I and some others would like to know when you can tell us if we have the legal option to say, ‘Well, 47 votes, they were pretty close. Let’s go ahead and vote to put it on the ballot,’” council member Janet Miller told interim City Attorney Sharon Dickgrafe.

Miller also said she wanted information on “how that works” if the city passes an ordinance in conflict with state statute, which would still treat marijuana possession as a criminal offense regardless of what the city code may say.

Dickgrafe did not say in the meeting whether the council could put a binding measure on the ballot and declined to comment on that afterward.

She said it could be different from the proposed sales tax increase that the council voted this week to put on the November ballot, because state law specifically requires a vote to raise the sales tax.

Dickgrafe said the council could schedule a closed session to get her legal advice before proceeding publicly.

She did say the council could hold a nonbinding advisory vote and that Lehman had agreed her office could administer the election. However, an advisory vote could not be held in conjunction with the November general election, Dickgrafe said.

Holding a special election would cost the city $50,000 to $60,000, or $200,000 if the election were conducted by mail, she said.

Petition organizers who attended the meeting said they aren’t interested in an advisory vote and they certainly don’t want to cost taxpayers $50,000-plus for a stand-alone election.

They also complained that they weren’t allowed to watch and monitor the signature counting, to assure themselves and the people who signed that names weren’t being rejected improperly.

It’s the second time this week that Lehman’s office has encountered controversy over doing its business behind closed doors.

On Tuesday, news reporters were denied access to watch the election office count the votes in the state primary election, as had been allowed in the past.

Instead, Lehman and county officials only allowed news media access to prescheduled press conferences and photo opportunities on election night.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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