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Deadline for certifying initiatives for ballot looming, but courts may end up deciding

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SALT LAKE CITY — Even though the deadline for determining if four citizens initiatives qualify for the November ballot is Friday, the debate over what should go before voters is likely to continue.

“We may not know the end result even by the end of (the) week,” said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, whose office oversees elections. “It may be several weeks or months of lawsuits before we find out who’s on the ballot. “

There is already what is now a federal lawsuit, filed by opponents of the medical marijuana initiative, claiming that putting it on the ballot would violate the Utah and United States constitutions.

Another lawsuit was filed on May 25 in 3rd District Court by opponents of the initiative backed by Count My Vote that’s intended to maintain a controversial candidate nomination process.

Voters had until April 15 to sign those and the other two initiatives now awaiting certification by the lieutenant governor’s office, expanding Medicaid coverage and creating an independent redistricting commission.

Then voters had another month to change their minds and fill out a signature removal form. Opponents of both the medical marijuana and Count My Vote initiatives circulated those forms in targeted areas of the state.

To qualify for the ballot, an initiative must have more than 113,000 voter signatures — 10 percent of votes cast for president in the most recent election — that meet specific thresholds in at least 26 of Utah’s 29 state Senate districts.

Still up in the air is how many voters decided to remove their signatures and in which districts, something the lieutenant governor’s office is sorting through.

“It might be close,” Cox said during a recent interview with KSL Newsradio’s Doug Wright.

State Elections Director Justin Lee said before the holiday weekend he wasn’t sure if he and his staff would end up working on Memorial Day after “working overtime, late at night and through last weekend.”

Each of the signature removal forms has to be verified as complete and checked against the state’s voter database, Lee said. Some have been questionable, he said, “but the majority don’t seem to have any big problems.”

Still to be sorted out is when the actual deadline was for turning in the signature removal forms because the forms specified by May 15, but the law states it’s actually before that date.

Lee said because of the court challenge, he couldn’t talk specifics about the issue.

“We’re going through every form,” he said. “There’s a few different stacks they’re going into.”

What goes on the ballot may ultimately be up to the courts, Lee said.

“We’re proceeding forward with our job,” he said. “We’ll see what the courts say.”

Walter Plumb, of Drug Safe Utah, the group suing over the marijuana initiative, said the battle to keep that initiative off the ballot is just getting started.

“It’s not over. No, no, no,” Plumb said. “We’re going to the mat.”

Keep My Voice filed suit late Friday against the lieutenant governor over his treatment of the initiative backed by Count My Voice, intended to strengthen the 2014 law allowing candidates a dual path to the primary ballot.

Now candidates can gather voter signatures for a place on a primary election ballot instead of participating in a political party’s traditional caucus and convention system.

Keep My Voice had launched its own initiative to restore the power of political parties to sole advance candidates to a primary or even directly to a general election but dropped the effort in favor of focusing on removing voter signatures.

Brandon Beckham, Keep My Voice director and co-founder, said the group is still “cautiously optimistic” enough signature-removal forms have been submitted to stop Count My Vote’s initiative from qualifying for the general election ballot.

Cox said he’s as eager as anybody to find out what happens with the initiatives.

“I’m among those waiting with bated breath to try and figure this out,” the lieutenant governor said. Utah hasn’t even had an initiative since 2004, he said, and to have four “very close to making it on the ballot is certainly unique.”

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