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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Florida Judge Denies Relief for Pot Ballot Snafu

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) - A South Florida judge stonewalled marijuana reform group NORML in a lawsuit lamenting that a medical-cannabis legalization item was mysteriously missing from a handful of early voting ballots.

Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips rejected NORML of Florida's request for an emergency injunction amid reports that several early voting ballots omitted Amendment 2, a measure that, if passed, would legalize medical marijuana in Florida.

The cannabis reform group's Florida chapter sued Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes last week, seeking urgent relief on behalf of voters whose ballots allegedly omitted the legalization item and inexplicably jumped from Amendment 1 to Amendment 3.

Among other requests, the lawsuit asked the court to compel Snipes to investigate the number of defective ballots, post signs warning of the error in early voting locations, and give notice to residents voting by mail that Amendment 2 may be absent from their ballots.

NORML, short for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, claimed there were a handful of reports of ballots missing Amendment 2, but that could be just the tip of the iceberg.

"The problem is we don't know how many ballots are missing the item," plaintiff Karen Goldstein, director of NORML's Florida chapter, told Courthouse News after learning about the ruling.

Broward County has also given conflicting accounts of what caused the mistake, Goldstein said.

In general, she said, the county claimed the defective ballots were test ballots that were accidentally put into voter circulation.

In another instance, the county allegedly came up with an explanation that there was moisture in a ballot machine that caused two pages to be stuck together, hiding the medical-marijuana legalization item.

Then, the machine moisture claim was abandoned and the county instead claimed a ballot printer was running low on ink, Goldstein said.

"How does a printer selectively run low on ink for one amendment?" she asked. "We don't know what the truth is, but these explanations certainly sound contradictory."

Nonetheless, Goldstein was reluctant to resort to conspiracy theories: "Personally I don't think this was intentional. The issue was they need a better proofreader. Maybe [Snipes] is unfamiliar with the 'Peter principle': it's a theory that people are promoted beyond their level of competence."

The Oct. 20 lawsuit called the error "catastrophic" for legalization efforts in Florida, and claimed it is "disenfranchising voters."

"The direct and proximate result of this egregious error, even if unintentional and inadvertent, is grossly inexcusable and cannot be permitted to stand," the complaint states.

In Friday's ruling, however, Judge Phillips wrote that NORML "failed to demonstrate irreparable harm or a violation of a clear legal right."

Phillips stated that voters who testified in the case — three mail-in voters and an on-site early voter — either were provided with corrected ballots or will readily have the opportunity to obtain corrected ballots.

"Based upon the evidence and testimony presented, the court determines that Dr. Snipes has not prevented any of the plaintiffs from obtaining a replacement ballot that contains the option to vote on Amendment 2," she wrote in a seven-page ruling.

The judge also noted that Snipes has taken remedial measures, such as advising early voting location supervisors of the error and directing them to double-check each ballot to make sure it contains the medical-marijuana legalization initiative before handing the ballot to voters.

Phillips expressly rejected NORML's request that the county post signs at early voting locations to warn of the potentially missing Amendment 2 item.

NORML says the damage done may be irreversible, given that the true number of defective ballots that have already been sent out and voted on remains uncertain. The group maintains that Broward County is a key demographic area of support for medical-cannabis legalization, and is crucial to passing the measure by the required 60 percent supermajority.

In 2014, a similar legalization measure in Florida narrowly missed the mark, receiving 57 percent of the vote. Both the 2014 and current legalization initiatives faced strong opposition from well-funded political committees bankrolled in large part by GOP megadonor and casino boss Sheldon Adelson.

Snipes' office meanwhile is rebutting NORML's claim that the ballot bungling alleged in the lawsuit could be widespread.

"The scope was very small," a spokesperson for the Broward County Supervisor of Elections told Courthouse News. "It was a possible five to seven ballots."

According to the election supervisor's website, more than 256,000 early votes, both mail-in and on-site, have been received in Broward County.

Because the judge rejected NORML's injunction request, the county is currently not obligated to investigate how many of those ballots are missing an Amendment 2 vote.

The Amendment 2 omission error was not the only apparent flub in Broward County early voting. On a transportation infrastructure funding measure, Broward voters were presented with a confusing misprint: the "Yes" line to approve the measure, which includes English, Spanish and Creole translations, reads "Yes/Si/No," with "No" mistakenly in the place of the Creole affirmative "Wi."

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