Marijuana Ballott Initiatives

Pepper Petersen, political director of New Approach Montana, right, explains two ballot initiatives regarding marijuana legalization to Danielle Bartlett before she signs them Monday at Spark1 in Bozeman.

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The coronavirus has altered yet another thing — ballot initiatives.

Montana’s secretary of state has determined that MTCARES, the group behind a ballot initiative that would require 80% of the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2034, can mail in non-notarized signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

The decision came shortly after a Montana judge ruled that New Approach Montana, which is seeking to legalize recreational marijuana, couldn’t collect electronic signatures to qualify its two initiatives, I-119 and CI-118.

Based on the secretary of state’s finding, MTCARES is now asking registered voters to print petition materials from its website, mtcares.org, sign them and mail them to their county’s election department for verification.

Typically, signatures are collected from dozens of voters on a single sheet of paper, which is then notarized. Instead, the group is asking voters to individually sign petition sheets for its initiative, known as I-187.

Notarizing thousands of individual signatures would have been prohibitively expensive, said Russ Doty, the initiative’s author. Instead of notarization, the secretary of state has said each person who signs a petition for I-187 can complete a verification form attesting to the accuracy of the information on their petition.

The secretary of state’s guidance came in response to an April 8 request from MTCARES.

By March, MTCARES had collected about 11,000 signatures or about 40% of the total needed to qualify for the ballot, Doty said. Since then, the group hasn’t been able to collect signatures because of the governor’s stay-at-home order and because many of its signature gatherers are older and must remain home even as Montana begins to reopen.

The group needs about 15,000 more signatures by the state’s June 19 deadline.

In a press call on Monday, Doty urged volunteers across Montana to reach out to everyone they know via social media, email and phone to ask them to mail in petition forms for I-187. He said he’s optimistic the group will qualify for the ballot.

MTCARES has also asked Gov. Steve Bullock to extend the deadline for signature gathering to July 3, but Doty said the group hasn’t yet received a response. Bullock’s office didn’t reply to a request for comment on Monday.

Because New Approach Montana’s petition to submit electronic signatures was rejected in court, the group began collecting signatures in-person on Saturday, according to a news release.

The group has developed a new signature-gathering process, which it said was reviewed by a public health expert. The process includes requiring volunteers to wear masks and gloves, having voters sign petitions with a single-use pen and requiring volunteers and signers to remain 6 feet apart.

“Our signature drive will allow Montana voters to exercise their constitutional right to a ballot initiative in a safe and responsible way,” said political director Pepper Petersen in a news release.

New Approach Montana sued the secretary of state’s office and the Montana Department of Justice on April 6, arguing that the stay-at-home order made it impossible to collect signatures to qualify for the ballot. The group requested temporary permission to collect signatures electronically and asked that the deadline for submitting signatures be extended to Aug. 3.

Missoula District Judge John Larson rejected both requests.

“The State’s compelling interest in maintaining the integrity and security of its election process outweighs any burden on Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights,” Larson wrote in his decision.

He added that New Approach Montana could request help from the governor’s office, which has weighed in on other election issues related to the pandemic, such as allowing counties to hold a mail-ballot June primary.

Petersen said he was disappointed with the ruling.

“At this juncture, attempting a conventional signature drive is our only path to ballot qualification,” he said in the release.

John Meyer, a Bozeman lawyer looking to qualify for the ballot as an independent candidate for attorney general, has similarly sued the secretary of state and Gallatin County’s election administrator over electronic signatures.

When the election department declined to review the electronic signatures he had submitted, he sued, saying the department broke the law by deciding not to examine the signatures.

Gallatin County District Court has yet to rule on his case.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.

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