Backers of an initiative petition to legalize recreational marijuana in Oklahoma became unwitting guinea pigs in a new process that was meant to speed up and automate the state’s antiquated signature verification system, but a series of delays compounded to keep it off the November general election ballot.
State Question 820 will now appear on a special statewide election in 2023 or go before voters in 2024, depending on what Gov. Kevin Stitt or his successor decides. Without any action by the governor, it would appear on the November 2024 ballot.
Oklahoma’s voter-led initiative petition process is among the hardest in the nation, with multiple chances to challenge the wording of the petition, voter signatures and the summary that appears on the ballot.
SQ 820 faced all of those challenges, but couldn’t surmount a longer-than-expected delay by a first-time vendor for the secretary of state’s office. Western Petition Systems LLC, an affiliated company of longtime political pollster Bill Shapard, was hired to verify signatures and check voter registration under a law passed in 2020 at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Missing the November 2022 ballot will deprive voters for the first time in nearly a century the opportunity to vote on a state question in a general election year. The Oklahoma Supreme Court made it official this week as it denied a request by the Yes on 820 campaign to put SQ 820 on the ballot. The court said there wasn’t enough time to be able to make an upcoming deadline for mailing overseas and absentee ballots.
SQ 820 would legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over and decriminalize marijuana possession and use. It would make no changes to Oklahoma’s existing medical marijuana program, which voters approved under SQ 788 in 2018.
Path to Election
Backers of SQ 820 thought they were well positioned to make the November ballot. They filed the initiative petition in January. The effort survived a challenge in the spring to the summary of the proposition used on signature-gathering sheets. The campaign then had 90 days to collect signatures. Organizers managed to collect more than 164,000 signatures in just 60 days, well above the threshold of 94,911 required for a statewide initiative petition. On July 5, the campaign delivered 118 boxes to the secretary of state’s office.
Campaign organizers were surprised to hear the boxes of signatures would be sent to Western Petition Systems. The 2020 law changing that part of the initiative petition process was among just a few policy-related bills to make it through the Legislature in a coronavirus-shortened legislative session. Few people knew an outside vendor would be hired to do the job.
The secretary of state’s office told the Yes on 820 campaign it would take two or three weeks to verify the signatures, a timeline close to several recent initiative petitions submitted for signature verification. The new process also included cross-referencing several data points, like name, address and ZIP code, with voter registration rolls.
Under its $300,000 per year contract, Western Petition Systems is supposed to conduct a timed test run of its equipment and signature verification process under the supervision of the secretary of state’s office.
According to the contract, “The (test run) will be used to test the entire process and (Western Petition Systems) shall continually look for ways to improve the scanning, data point collection, recording and transcribing of the initiative petitions.”
But in response to an open-records request by Oklahoma Watch, the secretary of state’s office said it had no documentation of the test run.
“We were pleased with the mock test run and with how the software performed,” the secretary of state’s office said in a written statement. “There was nothing noticed during the test run that raised any flags.”
Michelle Tilley, campaign director with Yes on 820, said in a legal filing the campaign had observers at the Oklahoma City offices of Western Petition Systems throughout the seven-week verification. Tilley said she noted several problems with the vendor’s verification system.
“The text generated by the Western Petition Systems computer program, based on its scans of the signature pages, was nearly always wildly inaccurate,” Tilley said in an Aug. 22 declaration filed with the Oklahoma Supreme Court. “This inaccuracy required individuals to laboriously look at physical signature sheets and enter nearly all names, addresses, birth dates, collection dates and other data by hand into the computer program.”
Aside from the $300,000 per year contract with Western Petition Systems, the secretary of state’s office spent more than $58,000 on temporary workers who were hired to verify signatures at Shapard’s offices for SQ 820, according to invoices obtained under state open records act requests. Among the temporary workers were several members of Shapard’s family.
Tilley said it became clear after a couple of days that workers were only able to get through about 1,000 signature sheets per day out of more than 20,000 signature sheets.
“Although they expressed hope that this pace would increase, neither the vendor nor the secretary attempted to speed up the process by adding additional workers, additional computers or additional hours,” Tilley said in the court declaration.
In an interview, Tilley said other delays arose before signature sheets were circulated because the secretary of state required a particular weight of paper. That was in short supply, and the campaign spent an extra $44,000 to get the special paper. By the time for verification, some of the sheets wouldn’t load into the scanner at the vendor’s offices.
“There were all kinds of little things like that,” Tilley said. “For the expertise they were selling on the contract, it obviously didn’t match up with reality. We internally verified our signatures four or five times before we turned them in. It literally took them almost as long to count as we took to gather.”
Challenge period ends
A final challenge period for the recreational marijuana state question ended Sept. 15, with four groups challenging either the signature verification or updated ballot language for SQ 820. The Supreme Court rejected all four challenges, although two filed late in the 10-business-day window for challenges could still file for rehearings before the court next week.
In denying the SQ 820 campaign’s bid to get on the November ballot, the court said there wasn’t enough time to get ballots to overseas voters.
The state Election Board said it had a functional deadline of Aug. 29 to get ballots printed, proofed and election return databases set up for all 77 counties in Oklahoma. Ballots have to be sent to overseas voters by Sept. 24.
“The statutory process cannot guarantee the availability of a particular election, as there are many factors to be considered – not the least of which is the verification and count of signatures and the opportunity for protest,” Chief Justice Richard Darby wrote in the majority opinion. “Petitioners diligently prepared SQ 820 for submission on the November 2022 general election ballot. Any delays to the process were caused by the Secretary of State’s ‘learning curve’ associated with the use of the new software and by the filing of four statutorily allowed protests.”
The delay at the signature-verification stage led to speculation that politics played a role in keeping SQ 820 off the November ballot. The politics of marijuana legalization don’t fit neatly into partisan boxes. SQ 788, the medical marijuana initiative, passed with 57% of the vote in 2018 and had support from Democrats, Republicans, independents and Libertarians. Rural voters in the western part of state weren’t as supportive, leading to several attempts by some rural lawmakers to change the initiative petition process.
In his state of the state speech this year, Stitt said he didn’t think voters were fully aware of the consequences of the medical marijuana state question. Unlike some other states that have legalized medical marijuana, Oklahoma does not require any medical conditions to get a patient card. Doctors do not prescribe any uses for cannabis and can only recommend that the patient qualifies. Almost 10% of the state’s population has a medical marijuana patient card, according to the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority.
“When Oklahomans voted for medical marijuana, they were sold a bill of goods,” Stitt said in the February speech. “The state question was misleading, and it has tied our hands as we regulate the industry.”
The rapid pace of the medical marijuana industry has come with growing pains. Thousands of dispensaries popped up across the state and grow operations in rural areas are competing with existing agricultural interests for water, land and electricity. Earlier this year, state lawmakers approved a moratorium on new business licenses.
Stitt spokeswoman Kate Vesper countered rumors on social media that the governor had interfered with the process for getting SQ 820 on the ballot. The secretary of state is a gubernatorial appointee.
“The suggestion that the governor attempted to interfere with the statutorily required duties of the secretary of state’s office is not only inaccurate but just absolutely absurd,” Vesper said.
Stitt told The Associated Press he’d prefer a federal solution to the patchwork efforts of states on marijuana policy.
“Do I wish that the feds would pass legalized marijuana? Yes. I think that would solve a lot of issues from all these different states,” Stitt said during a recent interview with the AP. “But in our state, just trying to protect our state right now, I don’t think it would be good for Oklahoma.”
Vesper said she had nothing to add on Stitt’s comments to the AP. There are ongoing conversations between the governor’s office and the Legislature as to when SQ 820 will be put on the ballot, she said.
Oklahoma’s initiative petition process is the toughest in the country among the states that allow such voter-driven initiatives, said Andy Moore, chief executive officer of Let’s Fix This and campaign manager for a recent state question effort to establish an independent redistricting commission for Oklahoma. That campaign was abandoned during the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
Moore said Oklahoma voters have the right under the state’s constitution to put initiative petitions on the ballot. But the state has the shortest time period to collect signatures. Other states with similar signature thresholds give more time, he said.
“A typical campaign is going to cost millions of dollars just to get the word out and collect signatures if it has any chance of success,” Moore said. “I think that is antithetical to what the framers of our state wanted. They wanted to give people the power to put a law on the ballot for people to vote. We know that process is very popular with voters.”
Between the constitutional requirements and state law for initiative petitions, Moore said, the process is not designed for efficiency. Several proposals from lawmakers this year would have made it even harder, including thresholds for petition votes by county and prohibitions on spending by out-of-state groups. None were successful.
“The process is not designed with the public in mind,” Moore said. “The process is designed to throw out signatures. It gives no trust to the public. It gives no trust to campaigns. I think it assumes the worst.”