Vote on recreational cannabis postponed

After a botched ballot process, the measure won’t appear for a vote for another year

As the midterm elections loom, many Oklahoma voters remain at a loss as to what became of their signatures on the petition to put Special Question 820 on the Nov. ballot. The initiative would legalize recreational usage and possession of marijuana products for all adults 21 and older. Per Oklahoma state law, to put a question directly to vote, bypassing the legislature and governor entirely, a group must file a petition with signatures equal to 8% of the total number of voters in the previous gubernatorial election. For this election, that number boiled down to 94,911 signatures required. The campaign had 90 days to reach this threshold, ultimately submitting roughly 70,000 signatures in excess after only 60 days.

This did not, however, suffice to get the initiative on the ballot, much to the surprise of those who saw relatively easy success with the initiative to legalize medicinal use of cannabis products in 2018. The difference lies with a relatively new Oklahoma law. State legislators passed House Bill 3286 in the shortened 2020 session, with Governor Stitt signing off on the bill. The new law provided that the Secretary of State’s office would oversee the hiring of an independent firm to validate all signatures that appear on state petitions. Unfortunately for advocates of the measure, Western Petition Systems LLC, the firm awarded the contract, moved at an unexpectedly slow pace. Michelle Tilley, campaign director for the initiative and witness to the verification process, said that the software used to read the handwritten names made excessive mistakes on each sheet, requiring verifiers to do much of the work by hand. With over 160,000 signatures in waiting, Tilley said that the actual pace processed around 1,000 signatures per day.

Western Petition Systems failed to validate the signatures quickly enough for the measure to appear on ballots this year. Advocates filed a case to force the issue onto the ballot anyway, as the pushback came from unforeseen issues for which the state, the firm or both appeared the liable parties in the delay to the direct democracy initiative. The Oklahoma Supreme Court, however, denied this request, stating that too little time remained to put the measure in the ballot’s final text. Overseas ballots, per the State Election Board, have to enter the mail by Sept. 24, and the board has to finalize the ballot text weeks before the ballots can even do that.

This does not mean, however, that the initiative will not ever appear before voters. Since the petition did, in the end, reach the required number of signatures to appear on the ballot, the measure will now appear in a 2023 special election as a result of action from the governor’s office. Stitt had the option to schedule the special election or leave it, and the winner of this year’s gubernatorial race would have had the same option entering next year. Without any action from the governor’s office, the initiative would still have appeared on the regular 2024 ballot.

Critics have wondered to what extent politics may have played a part in this delay, as Stitt himself may benefit from the measure’s ballot absence. A Pew Research poll indicates that while only 47% of republicans nationwide support legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes, a whopping 72% of democrats do. With the republican incumbent Stitt facing a potentially close election against democratic challenger and current State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, the initiative’s delay could come as a blessing to the incumbent. The initiative could have brought left-leaning voters to the polls who would not have otherwise come. The same Pew Research poll shows support for legalization at 78% for democrats age 18-29, the age group least likely to arrive at the polls. As the Secretary of State is an appointed position in Oklahoma, Stitt may struggle to avoid ire from the measure’s supporters.

State elections will occur in Oklahoma on Tuesday, Nov. 8 of this year without the initiative appearing. No statewide initiatives or referenda will appear on this year’s ballot.

Post Author: Zach Short