Marijuana advocates are considering legal action after they were allegedly misled in their mission to put initiatives before state voters to decriminalize and legalize marijuana in 2024.
Compassionate Options Wyoming, Wyoming NORML and the Wyoming Libertarian Party say they are considering “political and legal options” after discovering what they claim is proof that staff from the Secretary of State’s office wrongly told them they had to get around 11,000 more petition signatures than they actually needed by last winter to get their initiatives on the 2024 ballot.
In Wyoming, signature requirements to get initiatives on a ballot are based on voter turnout from previous elections. A certain number of signatures also must be gathered in ⅔ of the state’s 23 counties.
Apollo Pazell, a spokesperson for Compassionate Options, told Cowboy State Daily that the organizations believe their groups had gathered around 36,000 signatures to get their initiative on the 2024 ballot, well over the 29,730 threshold. Initially, he said staff from former Secretary of State's Ed Buchanan's office misled them by saying they needed 41,776 signatures.
Pazell said they also had enough signatures in ⅔ of the counties.
Voters Miss Out
Pazell said under the department’s new guidelines, the cannabis petitions would have qualified for the 2024 ballot with their 36,000 signatures from Wyoming registered voters.
“We apologize for any confusion you may have experienced in the past,” Assistant Elections Director Paul Raines wrote to the marijuana groups in a Sept. 19 email. “We are a whole new election team, and we have undertaken a comprehensive review of the initiative process in recent months, primarily due to an initiative currently filed with our office.”
The initiative referenced is a political party affiliation referendum that has been conditionally certified but hasn’t submitted signatures yet to qualify for the 2024 ballot.
Although preventing crossover voting — the process of changing one’s party affiliation to affect another party’s primary — is an issue Secretary of State Chuck Gray fought aggressively to prohibit during the 2023 legislative session, he hasn’t commented publicly or endorsed the ballot initiative that addresses this same issue.
Wyoming NORML Executive Director Bennett Sondeno complained in the press release that the cannabis petitions should have been given the same level of scrutiny as the crossover voting initiative in providing accurate information.
“Secretary Gray and his ‘new’ team should have provided the same deference and professionalism to the cannabis petition,” Sondeno said in the press release. “Why did they not undertake a ‘comprehensive review of the initiative process’ while there was a pending initiative on the table? Their behavior deprived Wyomingites of their rights.”
Denial From Gray
Gray denies that his staff gave any misleading or false information.
“The claims made in the release by the initiative organizers are lies,” Gray said. “The organizers, and specifically their lead consultant Apollo Pazell, are trying to make up inaccurate excuses for the fact that they failed to submit their initiative.”
Gray said the cannabis groups had claimed in March that they received 41,776 signatures but now that number has reduced by about 5,000, “raising doubts as to how many signatures they actually obtained and the overall credibility of their statements.”
Pazell said the 41,776 number was the total signatures collected, but after verifying the registered voter status of the signers, the new total of qualifying signatures was around 36,000.
He is the managing principal consultant for a firm that received $4,000 from Gray’s 2022 Republican primary opponent Tara Nethercott for advertising during her campaign.
Gray described the press release to Cowboy State Daily as “false claims" that "are clearly another political lie orchestrated by my political opponents."
Pazell clarified to Cowboy State Daily that this issue isn’t about Gray and that his group believes it has received incorrect information from three different Secretary of State administrations. He said all elections staff have been nothing but cordial and polite to members of his team throughout the years and that he doesn’t believe there was any nefarious intent to mislead in order to keep marijuana questions off the ballot.
“This has nothing to do with Chuck Gray,” Pazell said. “I understand that Chuck is a politician, but this has nothing to do with him being a politician.”
An Internet Archive search shows that the Secretary of State’s office website had been updated to reflect the new signature requirements at some point between Nov. 10, 2022, and Feb. 6, 2023. The signature requirements could not have been updated until the completion of the November 2022 general election.
In the press release, the cannabis groups say that on Feb. 4, the signature requirement had still not been updated. Pazell said his team’s last communication with the Secretary of State’s office was Jan. 13, where they were given information based on the older and higher signature requirements. He has no proof of this conversation taking place.
“We were operating in good faith that we didn’t have to keep a record,” Pazell said.
Gray provided emails to Cowboy State Daily showing that an internal email message was sent between elections staff Dec. 6, 2022, to change online the signature threshold from 41,776 to 29,730, to reflect the 2022 general election voter turnout. A staff member confirmed in one of the emails that the change had been made that day.
Sondeno said when their organizations started their initiative drive in 2021, they had been told by the Secretary of State’s office that to get their signature thresholds on the 2024 ballots, the requirements would be based on the turnout of the 2020 elections.
He told Raines in an email that they had been told by previous Secretary of State staff that their signature quotas would be based on 2020 election turnout (41,776 required) and that they had until the end of February to qualify their initiatives for the 2024 ballot.
Then in late 2022, Sondeno said they were told by the Secretary of State’s office that the deadline had bumped up to early January.
Gray said the deadline for this initiative was still early March and that any misinformation provided to the cannabis groups would have come from his predecessor, former Secretary of State Buchanan’s election team. There was massive turnover in the office, and particularly the elections division, when Gray took over, which Pazell believes could have led to staff providing conflicting information.
Gray, who took office in early January, said his office never received any inquiry from the initiative organizers as to what their signature requirements were or petitions before their deadline to file petitions in early March.
“Had they inquired, we would have informed them of the statute and case law clearly setting the date of final submission of a petition as the date that controls the determination of which prior general election will be used to calculate the 15% signature requirement,” he said.
Moving forward, the marijuana groups are now being told that if they want to get their initiative on the 2026 ballot based on the 2022 voter turnout, they must submit their signatures by the 2024 election. If they want to turn in their initiatives based on 2024 turnout, they will have until early 2026 to turn their petitions in.
Non-presidential election years generally draw less turnout, which creates a lower signature threshold for ballot initiatives.
Pazell said they are making plans for a federal court challenge of the constitutionality of Wyoming’s ⅔ county requirement for votes, a benchmark that he said has been removed in many other states for ballot initiatives. Within this lawsuit, they also plan to petition for the right to collect new signatures for the 2024 ballot.
The marijuana advocacy groups are encouraged by the fact they actually had enough signatures to get their initiatives on the 2024 ballot and will continue their efforts for 2026 if need be.
“Either way, this fight is not over,” said former state legislator and Libertarian Marshall Burt. “Patients, veterans and Wyoming families succeeded at collecting the signatures. This measure will be law no matter how hard they try to refuse our rights.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.