Federal Judge James Mahan turned Nevada's initiative petition law on its head Friday, striking down the state constitutional requirement that petitioners gather 10 percent of last election's turnout in at least 13 counties to put a question on the state ballot.
The judge ruled the state could only require a certain minimum number of signatures -10 percent of the turnout in the last general election - but could not add geographical and other requirements.
The marijuana petition, an initiative to legalize up to one ounce of marijuana, was tossed off the ballot because it qualified in only 12 counties and fell 249 votes shy of the 51,337 total number of signatures needed. Ronda Moore, elections deputy for Secretary of State Dean Heller, said without the 13-county requirement, another Nevada law comes into play requiring county election officials to verify every petition signature instead of relying on a 5 percent sample.
Clerks can sample 5 percent of the signers to estimate how many valid signatures are on a petition but a full count is mandated if that sample estimates total signers at more than 90 percent of the requirement and there are no other problems.
She said the secretary of state's office has advised clerks to begin counting all the signatures immediately. It will make the ballot if clerks find 249 additional valid names.
Moore said the marijuana petition isn't the only one affected by the ruling. She said the petition to bar all public employees from serving in the Legislature also got more than 90 percent of the total needed but didn't make it in 13 counties.
"Even though the district court order did not address the public employees petition, it falls in the same category so we're directing the clerks to examine all those signatures as well," she said.
Moore said with elections fast approaching, the decision puts tremendous pressure on the overworked staffs of Nevada's county election officials.
With limited manpower, she said she isn't certain some of them will be able to verify all the names on those two petitions as well as the "Axe the Tax" petition, which Heller's office has already ordered a full count on.
Carson City Clerk-Recorder Alan Glover agreed Friday saying he and the other 16 Nevada clerks don't think they will be able to finish the count by the deadline. Glover is head of the county clerks association.
Mahan's decision was based on a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco which upheld an Idaho federal judge's decision in a similar situation. Idaho too had a geographic requirement in addition to mandating a total number of signatures to put a ballot question before voters.
Matthew Brinckerhoff, a lawyer representing the two marijuana advocacy groups, said there was "a decent likelihood" of qualifying the initiative to let Nevada adults possess and use one ounce of marijuana.
Contact Geoff Dornan at email@example.com or 687-8750.