Advocates hoping to get measures on Ohio’s ballot this fall, including one proposal to decriminalize marijuana in certain municipalities in the state, will be able to collect signatures electronically due to the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

Judge Edmund Sargus Jr. of the Southern District Court of Ohio ruled that rules requiring signatures to be etched in ink ran afoul of individuals’ First Amendment rights as a result of orders in the state that bar large gatherings and have shuttered businesses—an obvious impediment to any petition drive.

“Plaintiffs cannot safely and effectively circulate their petitions in person,” Sargus wrote in his ruling, as quoted by the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Ohio does not permit any other forms of signature gathering, including electronic signing. And because Plaintiffs cannot collect signatures in person or electronically, they have no hope of collecting the required number of signatures from the required geographic distribution by the July deadlines.”

Sargus’ order, which the Enquirer said only applies to this November’s election “and only to plaintiffs in the case: Ohioans for Raising the Wage, Ohioans for Secure and Fair Elections, and supporters of local marijuana decriminalization measures in nine municipalities,” stemmed from a lawsuit filed by those ballot groups.  

Criticism Against The Ruling

A spokeswoman for Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose told the Enquirer that his office will appeal the ruling.

“Overnight a federal judge ruled that groups can ignore the Ohio Constitution to get their issues on the ballot in November,” the spokeswoman said. “Let me be clear, the petition requirements set in the Ohio Constitution and decisions on changing them belong to the General Assembly and the people.”

It’s not the first recent standoff between ballot issue advocates and the state—and not the first one surrounding a proposal to change Ohio’s marijuana laws.  In March, Ohio’s Attorney General Dave Yost dealt a blow to advocates aiming to get a measure to legalize recreational pot use on the ballot when he rejected the summary language offered by the group backing the measure.

Yost, who became AG last year, wrote to advocates pushing the amendment that he was “unable to certify the summary as a fair and truthful representation of the proposed amendment.” In particular, Yost singled out one section that “lists several findings and declarations that the amendment proposes to be made by ‘the people of the state of Ohio’.”

“The summary makes no mention of these findings and declarations,” Yost wrote in a letter. “Thus, it completely fails to inform a potential signer that the amendment elevates these ‘findings and declarations’ to a constitutional standard.”

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