Elections office does about-face on ASA petition | TheUnion.com

Elections office does about-face on ASA petition

Matthew Renda
Staff Writer

The Nevada County Elections Office has reversed course on the amount of signatures the Nevada County Chapter of Americans for Safe Access will need to force an election pertaining to the controversial medical marijuana cultivation ordinance.

In a prepared statement, Nevada County Registrar of Voters Greg Diaz stood by the method he employed to arrive at the 9,923-signature threshold for the ASA to reach, but said he recognized an ambiguity in the election code and decided to defer to the ASA to avoid potentially costly litigation.

"While I believe election law provides for including undervotes in calculating the number of signatures required to certify a petition for a special election, I recognize that there is an absence of case law upon which to draw and there have been different interpretations of election statutes," Diaz said. "Therefore, some leeway seems to be appropriate."

ASA Nevada County President Patricia Smith said the formula for arriving at the amount of signatures her organization needed to gather should not count undervotes — a term that describes when a voter participates in an election but declines to cast a vote in a particular race.

The number of required signatures stems from an interpretation of California Elections Code 9107, which begins with "the number of votes cast within the county for all candidates for governor at the last gubernatorial election." The elections office multiplies the number by 20 percent, which is the formula used for signature- gathering on statewide ballot initiatives.

As the deadline came and went for ASA, Smith said her group was considering bringing a lawsuit challenging the use of undervotes so that future community groups could have an easier path toward getting initiatives on the ballot. Diaz said the specter of a lawsuit was enough to sway his office.

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"ASA petitioners indicated to me that they intended to go to court to get the undercount issue resolved," Diaz said. "I believe that a small county such as ours should not bear the expense of adjudicating this matter. Larger counties are better able to take this on."

Larger counties, such as Orange County and Los Angeles County, do not count undervotes when applying similar formulas in their jurisdictions, according to Barry Pruett, a local attorney who ran against Diaz in 2010.

Smith said she does not suspect the county of using the formula in an inappropriate attempt to make it more difficult for her to get her measure in front of voters. "I'm not that cynical," she said.

Diaz praised Smith's organization for its diligence in collecting the signatures.

"I also recognize that the ASA petitioners labored hard and diligently to collect signatures while also suffering from many duplicate signatures and signers who were not currently registered, which the proponents chose to toss out," Diaz said.

However, Smith was critical of Diaz's office for not scrutinizing the policy as it applies to ballot initiatives.

"The policy was incorrect," she said. "It was never used, so nobody ever reviewed it. They should have reviewed it better instead of just pulling it out of the file cabinet and saying 'Here ya go.'"

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.

Ballot update

The Nevada County Chapter of Americans for Safe Access has yet to discover whether they have gathered enough legitimate signatures to qualify to have their initiative placed on the June 5 primary election.

The Nevada County Elections Office has until Feb. 12 to verify the more than 10,729 signatures that were submitted by the medical marijuana advocacy group.

The group will need to have 9,131 signatures to put an initiative on the election ballot.

Smith said during a recent interview that she had no update from the elections office regarding the verification process.

The special election will ask voters to approve a revised ordinance that will remove some requirements currently on the books, including setback regulations, square footage requirements and provisions relating to fencing.

Smith said her organization polled the community and 70 percent of respondents felt the current ordinance was overreaching.

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