An Alaska Superior Court judge has overturned a finding by state election officials that invalidated thousands of signatures for an initiative that would decriminalize marijuana possession. Last fall Free Hemp in Alaska (http://www.freehempinak.org), the initiative organizers, gathered nearly 50,000 signatures to place the issue on the ballot, but Lt. Governor Loren Leman, an avowed foe of marijuana reform whose duties include overseeing elections, threw out nearly 29,000 signatures, leaving the measure short of the 28,000 needed to qualify.
Free Hemp in Alaska appealed, charging that the disqualifications were politically motivated and based on technical violations that should not invalidate the signatures. In Alaska, signature gatherers are given books to do their work. Leman throw out 194 of 484 books turned in, including 188 because gatherers failed to identify who got the signatures, three because gatherers were not registered to vote, two because they failed to name the organization that paid the gatherer, and one because the gatherer failed to check a box stating whether or not he was paid.
Superior Court Judge Suddock agreed with Free Hemp in a September 22 ruling notable for its harshness toward Leman and the state Division of Elections. "Our Supreme Court has reiterated on several occasions that the right to initiative is not to be defeated by technical rule violations," he wrote. And he wondered in print whether the Division of Elections was trying to sabotage the initiative by failing to notify organizers of problems. "The Court is hesitant to find on this record that the Division of Elections lay as a snake in the grass, knowing that the initiative committee was at risk by virtue of its reporting errors... However, the Division was, at least, asleep at the switch," Suddock added.
Leman denied to several media outlets that his opinion of the initiative influenced his rulings on the signatures, but initiative supporters weren't buying it. "We anticipated some type of adversity from Loren Leman," one of the initiative's organizers, Scott Dunnachie told the Juneau Empire, adding that it was one of the reasons they collected so many extra signatures. "I do feel that there was something personal there. It is rare that an initiative is thrown out over a regulation."
Judge Suddock ordered the elections office to recount the 194 disqualified booklets, which should push the number of signatures well above the 28,000 needed. The Alaska Department of Law has not indicated whether it will appeal the ruling. It has until October 23 to do so.
According to attorney Kenneth Jacobus, who represented Free Hemp, the ruling should mean Alaska voters will have a chance to vote for decriminalization on the 2004 ballot. It "pretty much will be on the ballot," he told the Empire. But it may be a moot point, given last month's appeals court ruling that there is no law against marijuana possession in the home in Alaska. Stay tuned.