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Recreational cannabis question won't be on the ballot in Oklahoma this November

Supporters of State Question 820 turn in signatures to the Oklahoma Secretary of State in July 2022.
Yes On 820 Campaign
Supporters of State Question 820 turn in signatures to the Oklahoma Secretary of State in July 2022.

Oklahomans won’t be voting on recreational cannabis in November.

The state’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that although delays were beyond the organizers’ control, missed deadlines legally bar the question from the general election ballot.

State Question 820 would legalize cannabis, allow anyone over 21 to buy it, and expunge many criminal records related to marijuana. State officials delayed signature verification, which made the proposal’s organizers miss critical deadlines needed to get on the general election ballot. The organizers asked the Court to allow an exception. Although justices agreed the organizers were not at fault for the delays, the majority wrote that it didn’t have the power to make exceptions.

“There is no way to mandate the inclusion of SQ 820 on the November 2022 general election ballot,” the opinion reads in part.

The question will now go before Oklahoma voters in 2024, unless the governor calls a special election to put it on the ballot sooner.

How This Happened

Organizers Michelle Tilley Nichols and Michelle Jones began gathering signatures on May 3, according to the opinion released Wednesday. They had 90 days to submit them, and they did so a month early.

Generally, counting would take two or three weeks, according to the opinion. However, the Secretary of State’s office — which is tasked with verifying these signatures — hired an electronic counting contractor for the first time this year. The Legislature recently amended the law to allow electronic counting, and State Question 820 was the first initiative to be filed afterward.

The electronic counting software malfunctioned, according to the opinion, and often generated “wildly inaccurate” reads on the signatures. So the contractor and Secretary of State’s office had to manually count the signatures anyway.

Proponents offered to have volunteers help count, but the Secretary of State’s office declined and instead hired temporary workers and rerouted in-house workers to the effort. They also asked if the verification process could conclude once they reached the threshold, about 95,000 signatures. But the contractor — local pollster Bill Shapard’s company, WPS — said that the software wouldn’t allow a partial count.

“With their early start for counting signatures, Petitioners were hopeful they could get SQ 820 on the November 2022 general election ballot,” the opinion reads in part. “Nevertheless, the initiative petition process got bogged down in the Secretary of State’s Office… Ultimately, the signature and verification process did not conclude until August 17th, after nearly seven weeks.”

Election Secretary Paul Ziriax raised an issue then, according to the petition. On Aug. 10, he told the organizers that in order to get absentee ballots to military voters overseas in time, the initiative petition process has to be wrapped up by Aug. 26. And the measure still had several steps left in the process, so it was unlikely they’d make that deadline.

So on Aug. 22, the organizers filed a lawsuit before the Oklahoma Supreme Court against Ziriax, members of the state election board and Gov. Kevin Stitt. The lawsuit asked the Court to order each of them to carry out their duties in the process more quickly to allow the question to be placed on the ballot.

Justices said they wanted to let the clock run a little longer to monitor some of those remaining steps. For example, the law requires a 10-business-day protest period after the signatures are verified, which allows critics to raise concerns about the signatures or how the question will be written on the ballot. Justices said they wanted to wait out those two weeks and see whether critics filed any lawsuits. They filed four, and the Court has already decided on all of them, siding with the organizers. But two of them are still eligible for re-hearing.

The majority stated that the delays were not the organizers’ fault.

“Petitioners diligently prepared SQ 820 for submission on the November 2022 general election ballot,” the opinion states. “Any delays to the process were caused by the Secretary of State’s ‘learning curve’ associated with use of the new software and by the filing of four statutorily allowed protests.”

But, they said, there is no legal mechanism that would allow the issue to be placed on the November ballot.

Catherine Sweeney was StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter from 2020 to 2023.
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