Petition organizers warned court case could change qualification rules

As advocates for a variety of causes start collecting signatures to get on the November 2006 ballot, the Secretary of State's office has cautioned them to remember a case pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could change the rules at any time.

Historically, the Nevada Constitution required petition organizers collect signatures totaling not only 10 percent of the number who voted statewide in the last general election, but to meet that minimum percentage in at least 13 of the state's 17 counties.

That all changed in December 2004 when U.S. District Judge James Mahan tossed out the 13-county rule, saying under a 9th Circuit Court decision involving a similar requirement in Idaho, Nevada's requirement violated the "one man, one vote" rule. Mahan's ruling said all a petition drive needed was to meet the 10 percent statewide minimum, even if it did so in just one county.

"Right now the district court has an order saying the 13-county rule does not apply," said Ellick Hsu, deputy secretary of state for elections. "Until the 9th Circuit rules otherwise, that's the order that we have to apply."

Even if they don't have to hit the rural counties, collecting 83,184 valid signatures - this year's minimum - will be no easy task.

The proposed question at the center of the case - the proposal to legalize possession and use of small amounts of marijuana in Nevada - has qualified for the ballot by taking advantage of Mahan's ruling and collecting signatures primarily in Clark and Washoe counties.

Hsu said, however, the state appealed the ruling to defend the Nevada Constitution and resolve the issue once and for all.

"So there's a possibility that could change."

He said if the state wins the appeal, the 13-county rule would be applied not only to the marijuana question but to other petitions as well.

That list would include not only petitions just now beginning to collect signatures but two others which have already qualified for the ballot.

They are the competing petitions to restrict public smoking that have qualified for the ballot without meeting the 13-county requirement - one by the American Lung Association and a second by the resort industry which exempts hotel, casino and entertainment venues from the smoking ban.

Further complicating the situation, he said, there is no guarantee the 9th Circuit will hear the case and rule before the 2006 elections in November.

A year after the case went to the 9th Circuit, a status report filed Nov. 28 states the appellate court has not yet scheduled it for oral arguments.

Other proposals seeking supporters to get on the 2006 ballot include two major issues to strictly limit both new government spending and any tax increases. One is modeled after California's Proposition 13; the other after Colorado's Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

"They don't have to collect signatures in 13 counties, but we're advising them this could happen," said Hsu. "Maybe the most prudent course of action is to do the 13-county rule. I don't know."

The question with probably the best chance of doing that is the proposal sponsored by Nevada's county and city governments to stop the state from imposing "unfunded mandates" on local governments. That plan received widespread support as an advisory question in 2004.

-- Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at or 687-8750.


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