This fall, we expected a voter initiative on Maine’s ballot that would legalize marijuana. Polling suggested a clear majority of Maine voters (65%) would approve full legalization if given the chance to vote on it.
The Campaign To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Maine, the group running the initiative, were confident they had more than met the requirement of 61,123 valid signatures when they turned in a total of 99,229 signatures. Then came the bad news from the Secretary of State’s office.
According to Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, more than 47,686 signatures were rejected (48% disqualification rate!), including 17,000 signatures on the basis of the signature of a single notary. Despite attesting to the signatures, his own signature appeared “inconsistent” with the signature on file with the state. Without even notifying the proponents that the state had a question about whether those petitions had been properly notarized, on March 2nd the Secretary of State simply announced the initiative was rejected for failing to submit the required number of valid signatures.
State Officials Frequently Oppose Voter Initiatives
No one should be surprised that in most states, the elected officials who have to determine whether a voter initiative qualifies for the ballot are frequently hoping to find a legal basis to refuse to qualify the measure, especially if it seeks to legalize marijuana. Most elected officials remain committed to the war on marijuana smokers and are opposed to marijuana legalization. This is arguably why, to date, not a single state legislature has approved the legalization of marijuana despite majority support for such a change among the voters in those states.
The proponents of a voter initiative have to frequently revise (sometimes more than once) the summary language describing the proposal that will appear on the ballot, overcoming technical and substantive objections by the state authorities who are obviously hoping to undermine the success of the initiative. The current situation in Maine appears to fall into this category.
Proponents Now Seeking Judicial Review
The proponents have now gone to court to seek judicial review of what they believe is an arbitrary and unfair decision to disqualify so many of the signatures. The suit was filed on March 10th, and the court must reach a decision within 40 days. If the suit is successful, and those 17,000 signatures that were initially rejected because of the state’s concern the notary’s signature was not consistent, the initiative could still qualify for the November ballot.
Worth noting is that while all elected officials claim they embrace democracy and respect the will of the voters, the truth is they accept democracy and the will of the voters only when it coincides with their personal political views. When, as was the case in Maine, the initiative seeks to enact a public policy not favored by the state establishment, democracy and the will of the voters is seen as an inconvenience to be avoided.
While we await the decision of the court, we might also ask the obvious question of how the Maine legalization initiative, after months of work and tens of thousands of dollars in costs associated with collecting the signatures, ended up in such a mess.
What Went Wrong?
In addition to the actions of an unfriendly secretary of state, it also appears the proponents may have brought this problem on themselves.
First, a little recent history. Initially, two competing legalization initiatives were circulated in Maine this year. One was drafted by MPP and the other by a group of local grassroots activists calling themselves Legalize Maine. When it became clear the competing initiatives might well assure neither would be approved, a successful effort merged the two initiatives with an agreement to adopt the more progressive language drafted by Legalize Maine but turn the management of the initiative over to MPP and their local front-group, The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Maine. MPP would agree to raise the necessary funding to qualify the proposal for the ballot and run a professional campaign.
That sounded like a rational plan, since MPP has in the last several years successfully qualified several voter initiatives around the country. This time, though, something went terribly wrong.
Specifically, they hired Olympic Consulting, a firm specializing in voter initiatives. Based in Lewiston, Maine, Olympic Consulting would actually hire the signature collectors and oversee the signature collection process. This may well have been the crucial mistake, as we now learn that this same company also failed to qualify a second voter initiative this year in Maine (to legalize casino gambling), in which there were also allegations of irregularities in the signature collection process.
It turns out that the head of that same firm, Stavros Mendros, is the notary whose signature is now being challenged by the Secretary of State and the basis for disallowing at least 17,000 signatures.
Mendros plead guilty in 2007 to three counts of improperly notarizing documents involving an effort to allow a casino in Washington County. Again in 2013, Mendros was the subject of an ethics investigation by the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices regarding an allegation of unethical behavior during a 2011 attempt to bring casino gambling to Lewiston. There were plenty of warning signs that this consulting firm sometimes played it fast and loose with government regulations, and now that choice to use Olympic Consulting to gather and notarize signatures has apparently come home to roost.
Perhaps the Court Will Save The Initiative
Of course we all are hopeful that the courts will overrule the secretary of state and qualify the initiative for the ballot. However, it is rare for courts to second-guess state officials in these situations, and it is certainly not helpful that the group, and the specific individual, alleged to have incorrectly notarized so many signatures has a long track record of just such unethical conduct.
Regardless of the outcome, someone surely made an incredibly poor choice when they chose to hire a firm with such a checkered past for such a crucial role in the campaign. We will learn by April 11 whether this proved fatal to the legalization campaign for 2016 in Maine.
This column was first published on Marijuana.com