SALT LAKE CITY — Confusion over the deadline for turning in forms to remove voter signatures from initiative petitions has frustrated opponents of efforts to legalize medical marijuana and maintain a controversial candidate nomination process.
The official form that must be filled out by voters who have changed their minds about signing petitions to place an initiative on the ballot states the form "must be received by the county clerk by May 15, 2018."
But the state law spelling out the signature-removal process says, "In order for the signature to be removed, the statement must be received by the county clerk before May 15."
State Elections Director Justin Lee acknowledged that using the word "by" on the signature-removal form instead of "before" has caused problems "and could be wrong."
Lee said the Utah Attorney General's Office is reviewing what happens to forms turned in Tuesday and that county clerks have been told "to make very clear" which came in after May 14.
Groups organized to oppose two of the four initiatives seeking a spot on the November ballot were contacted Monday "just to make sure" they knew the deadline wasn't Tuesday, Lee said.
"If there's any confusion, we're certainly sorry," he said.
Backers of all of the initiatives, which also include an expansion of Medicaid coverage and the creation of an independent redistricting commission, have gathered well over the 113,000-plus signatures required for each.
Those signatures had to be verified by county clerks by Tuesday, but it's up to state elections officials to go through the names on the signature-removal forms by June 1 to determine whether there are enough to keep the initiatives off the ballot.
Besides the impact on the total number of signatures collected, the lieutenant governor's office, which oversees elections, must ensure enough valid voter names are still on the initiative petition in at least 26 of the 29 state Senate districts.
The Monday deadline came as a surprise to both Drug Free Utah, a group opposed to the medical marijuana initiative, and Keep My Voice, formed to fight the initiative that maintains a dual path to a primary election.
"You can't do this. It's like saying property taxes are due Nov. 30 and they're actually due Nov. 14, so you have to pay penalties," said Walter Plumb, an attorney who serves as vice chairman of Drug Free Utah.
In this case, Plumb said, opponents of legalizing medical marijuana lost out on a day of trying to convince voters who signed the initiative petition to formally remove their signatures.
"With a full day, we would have had maybe a couple hundred of them and that would have been the end of this thing," he said, noting the group got 104 voters to sign signature-removal forms in just three hours on Monday evening.
They ran into difficulty turning the forms in, Plumb said, because the door to the Davis County offices was locked. He said he instead dropped the forms off at the home of Davis County Clerk/Auditor Curtis Koch at about 10:45 p.m.
Koch said he was annoyed that Plumb went to his home "at an inappropriate hour" and that he'd been working at his office until about 11:30 pm. He said the decision had already been made not to accept forms after the office closed for the day.
The signature-removal forms were recorded as being received Tuesday, Koch said, after he brought them into the clerk's office. He said it's up to the lieutenant governor's office how the signature-removal requests are handled.
Koch said he was also unhappy about being met outside his office late Monday night by supporters of the medical marijuana initiative and that "both sides last night exercised really poor judgement."
Brandon Beckham, Keep My Voice director and co-founder, said even though finding out about the deadline midday Monday "was a big surprise to us ... we went ahead and scrambled to get everything in."
Beckham said enough signature-removal forms have been turned in to disqualify the initiative backed by Count My Vote in three Senate districts, in Utah, Davis and Washington counties, enough to keep it off the ballot.
Keep My Voice is holding a news conference at the Capitol on Wednesday.
Rich McKeown, Count My Vote executive chairman, said any "declaration of victory may be premature" because he believes there are still more signatures in favor of the initiative to be counted.
McKeown said he wasn't aware of issues with the signature-removal form deadline.
"That's too bad. But the law's the law," he said. "I don't know that a mistake can waive the law."
The initiative is intended to maintain the controversial 2014 legislative compromise known as SB54 that allows candidates to bypass the traditional caucus and convention selection system used by political parties by gathering voter signatures.
An ongoing legal fight over SB54 has split the Utah GOP and Beckham said he wants to make sure Keep My voice is "being treated fairly" by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican.
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum conservative advocacy group, said she helped "at least a couple hundred" people with forms to take their names off the medical marijuana initiative, telling all of them the deadline was Tuesday.
Drug Safe Utah, organized by the Utah Medical Association and Utah Eagle Forum, included the Tuesday deadline in its mailings, Ruzicka said.
"Of course it can make a difference," she said of the deadline confusion, especially in districts where the numbers are close. "The date on the form comes from the state. They just made a huge mistake."
That is especially true, she said, because some chose to mail or drop the form off themselves rather than leave it with a canvasser, because the signature-removal forms require identifying information including the last four digits of a voter's Social Security number.
"This is the first time from experience where I can ever remember the wrong date was sent out" by the state, Ruzicka said. "I think they have to find a way to honor the people who turned in their stuff today because they were told today."