TAMPA — Facing a tight deadline to submit signed petitions for a constitutional amendment allowing medical use of marijuana in Florida, backers are confident they’ll have enough valid signatures to get the measure on the 2014 ballot.
If so, that would leave approval of the amendment’s ballot language as the only potential roadblock to allowing Floridians to vote on the measure in the Nov. 4 election.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has objected to the amendment language, but a state Supreme Court decision may not come before April.
“I feel very confident that we will meet the petition deadline, and the only thing standing between us and the ballot is the judgment of the Supreme Court,” said Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care, the organization seeking to put the amendment before the voters.
Right now, the campaign appears to be a long way from its goal.
The Florida Division of Elections website lists shows only 210,961 valid signatures submitted to the division so far, with 683,149 required by Feb. 1 for a ballot spot.
But Pollara said the campaign has turned in nearly 900,000 petitions to the county supervisors of elections, who validate the signatures, and that many have been validated but not yet sent to the division.
Because some signatures are found to be invalid, petition gatherers believe they need substantially more than the minimum number. Pollara said the campaign hopes to finish with 1 million signatures by the end of this week.
Legally, county elections supervisors have up to 30 days after amendment backers turn in signatures to check their validity and submit them to the state.
But Pollara said county supervisors have assured him they won’t take the full 30 days, and officials at the Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas elections offices in general backed him up.
“I have spoken to pretty much every large county supervisor personally, or their senior staff, and we have a really great group of committed supervisors, whether Republican or Democratic, who are strongly committed to making sure their constituents’ voices are heard,” he said.
“Most are saying as long as you get them in about two weeks out from Feb. 1, we’ll get them done.”
Supervisors are responsible for making sure petititons are signed by legitimately registered voters, with no duplicates. They’re also handling petitions for a water and land conservation amendment.
In Pasco, the supervisor’s office has added three part-time workers to validate signatures, said Chief Deputy Supervisor Melba Hamilton. The staff has a backlog of about 25,000 petitions and is processing about 2,400 per day.
“Our plan is to do everything that comes in,” Hamilton said. “We have an all-hands-on-deck philosophy, and we’ll do out best. We’ve always had everything completed that was in our office by Feb.1.”
Hillsborough Supervisor Craig Latimer said his office has processed about 34,000 of the 69,000 petitions submitted, at a rate of about 4,000 a day.
“Everybody available in the office is doing petitions,” he said. “If you come to my office you‘ll see the receptionist at the front desk doing petitions.”
The Pinellas office, which is also handling a special primary and election to replace the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young, has processed 34,367 of the 72,728 submitted so far.
Those counties’ approval rates suggest that 1 million signatures, or possibly fewer, would produce the number of validated signatures needed. In Hillsborough, Latimer said about 74 percent of the signatures are proving valid. In Pinellas, 79 percent of those processed were valid, and figures from Pasco indicated an approval rate slightly exceeding 80 percent.
Personal injury attorney John Morgan of the Orlando-based Morgan & Morgan law firm is the leading financial backer of the amendment drive.
Pollara said the campaign has spent about $3 million, the majority donated by Morgan, with about 85 percent spent so far on petition gathering.
Bondi opposes the amendment’s language, contending it would allow indiscriminate use of marijuana for dubious reasons. In arguments before the Supreme Court, the justices questioned amendment backers closely on that issue.
Pollara wouldn’t predict how the court might rule, but said the amendment was “very carefully worded.”
“Every issue that she raised in her opposition were things we had discussed and thought through during the drafting process,” he said.