Editor’s note: This article was updated to include quotes from Oklahomans for Sensible Marijuana Laws.
The 48 days it took Oklahoma Secretary of State Brian Bringman’s office to certify signatures has doomed an adult-use cannabis initiative from landing on the 2022 ballot, the state’s Supreme Court ruled Sept. 21.
The 9-0 ruling is despite the court’s justices writing that petitioners from Oklahomans for Sensible Marijuana Laws (OSML), dubbed the Yes on 820 Campaign, “diligently prepared” State Question 820 for submission on the Nov. 8, 2022, general election ballot.
In fact, OSML organizers submitted roughly 164,000 signatures for their petition on July 5—well ahead of an Aug. 1 deadline to submit—but it took Bingman’s office nearly seven weeks (Aug. 22) to certify 117,257 signatures as valid. That beat the required minimum of 94,911 valid signatures.
When OSML advocates dropped off their signed petitions in early July, the secretary of state’s office advised them that the counting and verification process would likely take two to three weeks, “which was historically how long it had taken to manually count signatures,” according to the Supreme Court’s ruling this week.
Furthermore, state officials indicated the signatures could even be validated and certified quicker this year with the secretary of state’s office using newly created software in the counting process. In order to facilitate that process, OSML petitioners met with Bingman’s office to “ensure the signature sheets were formatted and printed correctly” so that the pages would scan through the new system, according to the Supreme Court.
But the new software did not work as planned and the petition process got “bogged down” in the secretary of state’s office, where state officials still had to perform much of the work manually because the new system frequently generated “wildly inaccurate” digital text, according to the Supreme Court.
At the time, OSML leaders said the seven weeks it took to certify the signatures resulted from “a third-party vendor’s unprecedented slow signature count and absurd bureaucratic delays.”
That slow signature count ended up causing OSML leaders to miss an Aug. 26 deadline for their measure to be finalized ahead of the statewide ballots being physically printed, according to Oklahoma Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax.
Editor’s note: While Aug. 26 was an “internal” deadline imposed by Ziriax, the state’s statutory deadline to call a state question for the 2022 ballot was Aug. 29.
While the OSML petition was certified Aug. 22, that didn’t leave enough time for a 10-day protest period to play out under state law. The certified ballot measure ended up receiving four challenges during the protest period, two of which have since been fully dismissed by the Supreme Court. The other two were also rejected but the challengers in those protests still have the opportunity to request a rehearing before their cases are officially closed.
With two protests still pending, and with the missed election board deadline, the Supreme Court ruled Sept. 21 that the ballot measure will have to wait until a future election, effectively denying OSML’s writ of mandamus requesting the court to exercise its constitutional authority to approve the ballot measure.
“Any delays to the process were caused by the secretary of state’s ‘learning curve’ associated with use of the new software,” the concurring justices wrote in their ruling. “At this point in time, S.Q. 820 is not in full compliance. There is still a possibility of rehearing in two of the protests, which prevents this court from fully resolving those objections in compliance with [state law]. That, in turn, prevents the secretary of state and the governor from taking their final steps in compliance with [the law].”
But OSML’s campaign effort was not a lost cause entirely.
Granted that the two pending protests are fully dismissed, the Supreme Court ruled in the Sept. 21 decision that S.Q. 820 will be voted on by the people of Oklahoma no later than the November 2024 election. The measure could be voted on sooner at a special election set by the governor or state Legislature.
“Of course we are disappointed that the court did not grant our request to place S.Q. 820 on the November 2022 ballot,” OSML Campaign Director Michelle Tilley said in a statement Wednesday. “It is disappointing that the secretary of state’s unqualified vendor, combined with rival amateur campaigns and political special interest groups, delayed the process, thereby preventing Oklahomans from voting on this in November.
“However, we cannot lose sight of how far we have come. This is a big deal. Now the petition phase is finished, and Oklahomans will be voting on whether to legalize recreational marijuana here, and we can soon realize the tax revenue and other benefits it will bring to our state.”
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