The legal tug-of-war over the fate of an anti-marijuana voter initiative has taken an interesting twist.
At issue is whether Initiative 176 received the necessary signatures to qualify for a spot on Montana’s November ballot.
During a meeting in Helena Wednesday, SafeMontana founder Steve Zabawa presented Secretary of State Linda McCulloch with more than 32-hundred signatures that he claims are valid but were rejected by county election officials.
Zabawa wants McCulloch to accept those signatures and count them toward the 24,175 his initiative needs to secure a spot on the ballot.
In a letter to Zabawa, McCulloch maintains those signatures cannot be counted, because they missed the July 15 deadline to be submitted.
According to McCulloch, the I-176 petition fell short of qualifying for the state ballot by more than four thousand signatures.
Now, Zabawa turns his attention to a hearing Friday morning before Flathead County District Judge Heidi Ulbricht.
In that hearing, SafeMontana will ask the judge to order McCulloch to count those 3,200 signatures and certify I-176 for the ballot.
“Nobody’s ever done this before,” said Zabawa. “This is the first time that somebody has gone into a petition that was close and actually audited the results, and they’re not liking the results.” Zabawa said.
Zabawa explained that his group audited more than 6,000 rejected signatures and found more than 3,200 were, in fact, valid signatures of registered voters.
The founder of SafeMontana said that he conferred with election officials in the Secretary of State’s office who explained the process of challenging rejected signatures.
“They’re the ones selling me the lists, took $2,000 dollars of my money to sell me the list to do the audit,” said Zabawa.
‘”They’re the ones that told me that I could do the audit, and now they’re saying it’s too late,” Zabawa said. It’s unfortunate that they’ve taken this position. They’re going to look foolish in front of the judge on Friday.”
Zabawa’s group also wants Judge Ulbricht to order Flathead County officials to account for as many as 25-hundred signatures that he claims were lost during the verification process.
Flathead County officials deny that any signatures were lost or misplaced.
Zabawa said if it’s too late to add I-176 to this year’s ballot. He wants the judge to put it on the 2018 ballot.
When asked if he was optimistic about Friday’s court hearing, Zabawa said he is “cautiously optimistic”.
“It’s a hail Mary pass at the last moment,” said Zabawa. “We’re well represented. We have straight facts. All we want is the truth. We don’t want anything given to us that’s not right,” Zabawa said.
Zabawa acknowledged that the clock is ticking for his group’s effort to get I-176 on the ballot.
The Montana ballot must be certified by August 25 so it can meet its printing deadlines.