Backers of an initiative to legalize marijuana filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging the secretary of state’s decision to disqualify the measure from the November ballot and alleging that he didn’t review every notary signature that was invalidated.
The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is disputing a March 2 determination by Secretary of State Matt Dunlap that 26,779 public signatures were invalid because the signature of the notary who signed the petitions didn’t match the signature on file with his office. The campaign needed 61,123 signatures of registered voters but only provided 51,543 valid signatures, according to Dunlap. The campaign had turned in 99,229 signatures Feb. 1.
The campaign is focusing its appeal largely on the determination that about 17,000 of the 26,779 public signatures were invalid for the sole reason that the signatures of notary Stavros Mendros varied and didn’t match what is on file with the secretary of state.
Mendros, whose Lewiston company, Olympic Consulting, was hired by the campaign to collect signatures, signed 5,099 petitions. The marijuana group paid Olympic Consulting nearly $26,930 for signature collection, according to its most recent campaign finance report.
“We hope the secretary of state doesn’t disenfranchise 17,000 voters because of a handwriting technicality,” David Boyer, manager of the legalization campaign, said Thursday.
REVIEW OF SIGNATURES QUESTIONED
According to Dunlap’s office, the signatures notarized by Mendros were among more than 31,000 public signatures deemed invalid because the petition circulator or notary signatures didn’t match corresponding signatures on file. Other irregularities included 13,525 signatures that were invalid because they didn’t belong to a registered voter in the municipality where they were submitted.
Dunlap also determined March 2 that a separate campaign to give Las Vegas gambling promoter Shawn Scott the exclusive right to build a casino in York County didn’t qualify for the ballot because there weren’t enough signatures. That campaign, Horseracing Jobs Fairness, paid Olympic Consulting more than $117,000 for signature collection during a two-week period in December.
Cheryl Timberlake, treasurer for Horseracing Jobs Fairness, didn’t respond to a request for comment and hasn’t indicated whether the campaign will appeal Dunlap’s decision.
Mendros, who pleaded guilty to petition irregularities in 2007, didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday.
In the lawsuit filed Thursday, the legalization campaign alleges that Dunlap didn’t review every notary signature invalidated on the grounds that the signature didn’t match the one on file.
“Instead, the secretary of state reviewed a portion of the notaries’ signatures, and then disallowed all petitions signed by those notaries,” the lawsuit states.
Scott Anderson, an attorney from Verrill Dana who represents the campaign, said Dunlap contacted the campaign to verify the home addresses of several circulators, but didn’t raise the issue of the signatures.
“We think we could have cleared up this issue at that time,” Anderson said. “Although there is variability from signature to signature, we believe they match as much as required.”
‘OUR GOAL … IS NOT TO DISQUALIFY’
Anderson argues in the lawsuit that there is no provision in the state constitution that permits the secretary of state to invalidate petitions or signatures based on his subjective visual evaluation for the signatures on the petitions.
The campaign had 10 days to appeal Dunlap’s decision. The campaign filed its appeal Thursday in Kennebec County Superior Court, which must rule on the issue within 40 days of Dunlap’s March 2 announcement. The Superior Court’s ruling could be appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which would have 30 days to act on the Superior Court ruling.
Dunlap was not available to answer questions Thursday, but released a statement in response to the campaign’s lawsuit.
“Our goal in certifying any initiative is not to disqualify the signatures or any other aspect of the petitions process; quite the opposite. It is incumbent on us to discern that each and every signature was solicited by a Maine voter, made by a Maine voter, and properly notarized,” he said. “Our petition certification process is designed to assure that every signature on the petitions was made in accordance with the law and we are confident that the Superior Court will recognize our diligence and confirm our decision.”
The legalization bill would allow adults to possess up to 2½ ounces of marijuana and to cultivate a limited number of plants. Retail stores and social clubs would be allowed with municipal approval. Adults would be prohibited from using marijuana in public, with violations punishable by a $100 fine. The bill also places a sales tax of 10 percent on retail marijuana and marijuana products.
If Maine were to legalize recreational marijuana, it would join Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., in allowing adults to buy and possess the drug. All have passed laws legalizing recreational marijuana despite a federal prohibition. Legalization proposals are expected to be considered this year in Nevada, California, Arizona, Michigan, Massachusetts and Vermont.