In Oregon, two separate marijuana regulation and legalization initiatives that appeared poised to make the ballot a month ago are now on pins and needles after having unprecedented numbers of voter signatures invalidated by state election officials. With just two weeks to go before the July 6 deadline to hand in signatures, both campaigns need to come up with tens of thousands of signatures in a hurry.
At the end of May, both campaigns turned in enough signatures to qualify for early verification by the secretary of state's office. They achieved that goal by turning in enough raw signatures to meet their respective targets -- and then some. OCTA turned in 108,000 signatures and OMPI turned in 122,000, putting them well within range of qualifying if they got the typical invalidation rate of 30% to 35%.
But this week, election officials announced a real shocker. According to the Secretary of State's office, not only did neither initiative have enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, but both were seeing signatures invalidating at record high levels.
OCTA qualified only 55,869 signatures and OMPI qualified only 63,804. That means OCTA needs another 32,000 valid signatures and OMPI needs another 53,000.
Based on the raw numbers, both initiatives had signature approval rates of around 50%, although the official figure is slightly higher because election officials threw some signatures out at the beginning. For OCTA the official rate was 58.5%, and for OMPI the official rate was 54.1%.
Still, "things are looking pretty good" despite the sucker punch from election officials, said OCTA chief proponent Paul Stanford. "We've collected another 40,000 signatures since the early deadline and now have 140,000."
OCTA is getting a boost from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, which represents 19,000 workers in Oregon and southwest Washington. The union has endorsed OCTA and is putting some muscle behind the effort.
"From retail to manufacturing to health care, we recognize that a vibrant hemp and cannabis industry in Oregon will create thousands of family-wage, sustainable jobs across the entire state," said union President Dan Clay.
"They're helping us out," said Stanford. "They have access to the state Democratic Party voter access network, and we were able to use that to do a huge mailing to 12,000 activists. We decided to target the people identified as the most progressive and who had not missed a vote in the last six years. And then we robocalled them -- we only mailed to people we had telephone numbers for. We got 9,355 people who said they would sign, and we think that can turn into an additional 10,000 to 25,000 signatures."
OCTA is also tightening its procedures, Stanford said. "We're screening our signatures much better now, we're checking in with every single petitioner. We're closely scrutinizing every incoming sheet," he said.
The path to the ballot is a bit steeper for OMPI, but the campaign said it would carry on.
"Because of the historically low and unusually low validity rate as determined by the Oregon Secretary of State's office, getting on the ballot is going to present an even larger challenge in the last three weeks, but we will continue to gather signatures and will challenge the decisions invalidating signatures," said Robert Wolfe, one of the three proponents behind the OMPI. "Mathematically, we can still do this despite the unusually low validation rate."
But while Wolfe maintained the OMPI could still gather enough new signatures to qualify for the ballot, most of his energy seemed focused on challenging the invalidated signatures.
"First, we have to recover copies of every sheet they've worked on to see which signatures were invalidated and why and then to double check their work," he said. "We have other options, up to and including filing for injunctive relief in circuit court."
The lowest validity rates recorded in Oregon initiatives have been 65%, and Wolfe said the OMPI had programmed its signature drive to get enough valid signatures even if the validity rate reached that historic low.
"To come in at 54% was a real shock," he said.
Oregon initiative campaigners are facing a tougher stance from election officials, for reasons that don't necessarily have much to do with marijuana. Plagued by repeated anti-tax initiatives filed by arch-conservatives in the past two decades, progressive state officials have continually tightened signature-gathering and -validation requirements as a means to fend them off. But those measures are making it harder for everybody.
"Over the past few years, the Secretary of State's office has enacted rules and procedures that seek to exclude every possible signature from being counted. That disenfranchises a lot of voters," Wolfe said. "I think those are progressive officials, and progressives should seek to include every possible signature, to honor the intent of voters who signed. I don't think they're acting in the interest of democracy."
"There have been a lot of changes and increasing restrictions on way the petitioning works," concurred Stanford. "We had 9,000 signatures invalidated because the petitioner's badges had not been certified."
Stanford said the OCTA would make a final push over the 4th of July holiday. "We have 140,000 signatures now and we think we need 160,000, but we think we'll have 170,000 by the deadline," he said.
Marijuana legalization initiatives are already on the ballot in Colorado and Washington. Will Oregon make three? In two weeks, we'll see.