Supreme Court: Ohio Pot Referendum Petitions Must Have Signatures

Supreme Court: Ohio Pot Referendum Petitions Must Have Signatures
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington on May 4, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

The Supreme Court refused last week to bend Ohio election rules to accommodate marijuana decriminalization advocates who failed to gather enough in-person petition signatures to get their referendum question on the Nov. 3 ballot in several cities.

The emergency application to stop Ohio from enforcing its ballot-access rules was referred to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who, in turn, referred the matter to the full Supreme Court, which denied the application late June 25.

The Supreme Court offered no explanation for its decision, as is its custom.

The courts have seen a flurry of litigation recently regarding signatures in the electoral process. Citing the current public health emergency, Democratic officials in Minnesota have decided to bypass a state law requiring absentee ballots to be accompanied by the signature of a witness, a move that critics say opens the door to voter fraud.

Removing the witness requirement for mail-in ballots is a goal in many recent lawsuits filed by Democrats and allied groups as part of a coordinated nationwide attack on laws enacted to protect electoral integrity.

Democrats say the witness requirement is unfair and overly burdensome, especially now during the pandemic. Republicans say it’s always essential to prevent voter fraud. The new rule in Minnesota will affect voting in the Aug. 11 primary elections.

Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation and a former Justice Department civil rights attorney, said issues with signatures frequently affect ballot access.

“Signature verification cuts both ways,” he told The Epoch Times. “Sometimes they use it to disqualify conservative petition efforts. California election officials do it all the time.”

Special interest groups frequently place referendum questions on ballots to boost turnout for the political candidates and parties they favor. For example, liberals, experts say, put minimum wage increases on the ballot to increase turnout for Democratic candidates.

In the case at hand, Chad Thompson, executive director of the Sensible Movement Coalition (SMC), and other Ohioans argued it was impossible to meet the state’s deadline of July 16 because of social-distancing and lockdown regulations imposed in the Buckeye State to combat the CCP virus. They said it would be an impermissible hardship for them to have to gather signatures in person, as opposed to digital or online signatures, amid pandemic-related restrictions.

The SMC takes credit for “more than a dozen successful decriminalization initiatives across the state in recent years,” according to trade publication Marijuana Moment.

SMC helped to get decriminalization policies enacted in 17 Ohio cities and was planning to move forward with “local decriminalization initiatives in 14 additional municipalities this year before officials issued stay-at-home orders and required social distancing measures,” the publication reported.

Ohio law provides that “‘signatures shall be affixed in ink” and must be original, meaning that collection efforts must produce ‘wet’ signatures. [The law] adds that circulators must personally witness the signatures collected. The combination of these laws establishes that collection must be in-person and close enough to facilitate witnessing,” Thompson stated in the emergency application to vacate stay filed with the Supreme Court in the case cited as Thompson v. DeWine.

“Nothing in the record suggests it can be accomplished from a distance of six feet,” the application stated, referring to the recommended social-distancing requirement of six feet between individuals.

A federal judge enjoined Ohio from enforcing the July 16 deadline or insisting upon ink signatures and witnesses, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted that injunction, reasoning that the state’s rules failed to impose a “severe” burden on their access to the ballot.

Thompson told the Supreme Court that the 6th Circuit ruling infringes on the free-speech rights of marijuana decriminalization advocates.

“Applicants here want to remain safe,” the application stated. “They want their families to remain safe. They want their friends to remain safe. They want Ohioans to remain safe. They also do not want to be arrested. What applicants want is to exercise their First Amendment rights in a way that is consistent with the COVID-19 crisis.”

Ohio defended its ballot-initiative rules, arguing in a brief that accommodating Thompson’s group would have required officials to rush to put together a “half-baked” plan permitting online signature gathering. Any burden imposed is “at most modest,” considering the compelling interest the state has in protecting the integrity of ballot initiatives.

“None of Ohio’s signature requirements for ballot initiatives restrict communications between initiative proponents and the potential signatories they must convince,” Ohio argued in its brief, according to Courthouse News. “As a result, they do not trigger scrutiny under the free speech clause.”

The applicants’ attorney of record in the case, Mark R. Brown, a professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, told The Epoch Times his clients “are disappointed in the result” at the Supreme Court.