UPDATE 9/9/22: A Cole County judge has ruled in favor of the state of Missouri, paving the way for recreational marijuana to stay on the ballot in the November election.
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – A Greene County election error on the petition to legalize recreational marijuana nearly cost the state its certification, and it still could. A Missouri judge will rule this week on whether to allow voters a say in legalizing recreational marijuana.
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft validated thousands of Greene County signatures previously disqualified just before the Aug. 9 deadline to determine whether the petition, known as LegalMo22, had enough support to put it on the November ballot.
What’s behind the lawsuit against Missouri’s recreational pot petition
Opponents are suing the state over the certification, claiming if Greene County invalidated signatures, the state shouldn’t have stepped in to change the outcome.
“Frankly I think it’s silly to say we don’t want the state – when it’s doing something that entails the rights of the people of the state – to say we don’t want them to double check to make sure they’re doing it right,” said Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft.
Joy Sweeney, who opposes recreational marijuana legalization, is suing Ashcroft in an effort to block the measure from the ballot. Court records show Sweeney alleges that Ashcroft broke the law by certifying signatures not validated on the county level.
“As the former executive director for drug-free youth there in Missouri for over 10 years, I definitely see the harms that youth use of marijuana causes our young people,” said Sweeney.
Why the State of Missouri audited signature sheets
In August, the state audited signature sheets after recreational marijuana supporters flagged that preliminary counts were lower than expected.
“There were really two main congressional districts that the proponents wanted us to look at,” said Ashcroft. “We looked at the whole thing.”
One of those two main congressional districts was Southwest Missouri’s District 7, where Greene County accounts for most of the population. Thousands of signatures the Greene County Clerk’s office originally deemed invalid were verified at the state level following the internal audit.
“All good work has more than one set of eyes that’s checking along the way,” said Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller. “I’m glad that this organization looked at it and said we think there’s something wrong here.”
Schoeller said part of the discrepancy came from a temporary election judge who mistakenly invalidated the signatures of Greene County residents whose addresses were in the county but did not match their voter registration.
Other signatures were initially illegible, but new technology allowed the Secretary of State to digitally verify what election workers could not. Sweeney believes if they were legitimate errors, they should have been handled at the county level.
“County clerks were not even made aware of it,” said Sweeney. “It was done very, very quickly behind closed doors and that certainly lacks transparency.”
How Greene County fits in and what’s next
Schoeller said the state made changes to the signature count without his knowledge.
“Normally I think they would have reached out to us, but I think they knew that that was literally the week of the August election and so they went ahead and did that work internally,” he said.
By law, Missouri needed six of its eight congressional districts to gather enough signatures to certify the issue and put it on the ballot. The total number depends on how many people voted in the last gubernatorial election. In each district, it must be equivalent to 8% of the votes cast.
Missouri qualified just enough districts, getting the required eight. However, our Congressional District 7 would have fallen short if the state hadn’t double-checked signatures, meaning Greene County made the difference in putting recreational marijuana before voters.
Whether the issue of recreational marijuana legalization will stay on the ballot is now up to a judge in Cole County, who has until Friday morning to file a judgment in the lawsuit, allowing time for the appeals process prior to the November election.