No High Court Detour for Ballot Initiative Signature Rules

A woman wearing a mask walks with her groceries past a closed Lakeshore Cinema in Euclid, Ohio, on May 6. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court declined Thursday to disturb signature rules for Ohio ballot initiatives, dealing a blow to marijuana advocates who say the pandemic has made such rules unworkable. 

Led by Chad Thompson, supporters of the movement to decriminalize marijuana had brought the suit three months ahead of Ohio’s July 16 deadline to submit signatures that would get their initiative on the ballot.

In order to be valid, the signatures must be “affixed in ink” and witnessed by one of the people circulating the initiatives. The challengers sought either an extension or a relaxation of the rules so they could either gather fewer signatures or receive them remotely since Ohio, like the rest of the country, put a stop to business not considered life-sustaining after the novel coronavirus was designated as a global pandemic in early March.

Three days after the group filed suit, Ohio exempted people gathering signatures for ballot initiatives from its ban on gatherings. But calling the exception nothing more than an attempt to moot their claims, the group said the restrictions that were left in place, including physical-distancing rules and a ban on large gatherings, made it hard to collect signatures.

The exception also did nothing to make up for the time the signature hunters lost before it was issued.

A federal judge granted an injunction that prevented Ohio from enforcing the July 16 deadline or requiring ink signatures and witnesses, but the Sixth Circuit put a hold on such relief last month, saying Ohio’s restrictions left the signature gatherers significant room to operate and did not impose a “severe” burden on their access to the ballot.

Thompson and the other advocates petitioned the Supreme Court for a stay, alleging an unconstitutional restriction on their free-speech rights.

“Applicants here want to remain safe,” their application states. “They want their families to remain safe. They want their friends to remain safe. They want Ohioans to remain safe. They also do not want to be arrested. What applicants want is to exercise their First Amendment rights in a way that is consistent with the Covid-19 crisis.” 

Defending its ballot-initiative rules, Ohio said the injunction required officials to cobble together a “half-baked” plan allowing for online signature gathering that would be hard to quickly stand up.

The state argued laws on legislative procedure are not subject to the First Amendment’s free-speech clause and that the burden on the signature gatherers is “at most modest,” considering the strong interest the state has in ensuring the integrity of ballot initiatives. 

“None of Ohio’s signature requirements for ballot initiatives restrict communications between initiative proponents and the potential signatories they must convince,” Ohio argued in its brief. “As a result, they do not trigger scrutiny under the free speech clause.”

Per its custom the Supreme Court did not issue any statement Thursday in declining to grant a stay.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office did not immediately return a request for comment on the decision.

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