Political clashes heat up as big issues head for Utah ballot

May 14, 2018

In this Tuesday, May 8, 2018, photo, shows Willow Hennessy sittings on the wheelchair of her adopted brother Hestevan, who has cerebral palsy and suffers from chronic nerve pain, seizure disorder during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City, as supporters of a medical-marijuana ballot initiative fend off opponents' increasing efforts to keep them off the ballot. The Utah Patients Coalition said Friday, May 11, 2018, that canvassers are misleading people into taking their names off the petition. Opponents with Drug Safe Utah deny using any fraudulent claims to make their case. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Allegations of deceit, fraud, intimidation and cash for signatures are heating up political battles in conservative Utah, where voters are poised to weigh hot-button ballot initiatives for the first time in over a decade.

Four initiatives have collected enough signatures to make the November ballot: approving medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion, political candidate nominations and redistricting.

But opponents have been knocking on doors asking people to withdraw their support — and Utah law lets them target a few areas where support is weaker.

The last-ditch push ends Tuesday, which is the last day that names can be removed, and the count will begin to see if it tipped the balance.

The spats come as groups turn to voters after years of trying to convince conservative lawmakers to see things their way. The issues poised to make the ballot generally have strong support in voter polls, said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute at the University of Utah.

“Utahns on a couple of these key issues are wanting to take bigger steps than the Legislature has made and they feel like they have the power to do it,” he said.

A high bar requiring signature-gathering thresholds in nearly every county has helped sideline the option of initiatives for 14 years, but this year things are different. Aided by shifting demographics, the organizing power of social media and motivated donors, groups backing four separate issues have turned in enough signatures to make the ballot.

While tug-of-wars over signature gathering are common, the last-minute ferocity is unusual, said Josh Altic with the site Ballotpedia.

Medical marijuana has been the biggest hotspot.

“All of a sudden we’re up against these huge, huge lobbying groups,” said Doug Rice, a retired firefighter who fought back tears last week as he talked about the proposal he supports to help treat his daughter’s epilepsy.

The Utah Patients Coalition is threatening to sue after obtaining cellphone video of opposition canvassers using what they call deceitful, high-pressure tactics to flip petition-signers, like telling them their signature may have been forged.

Opponents at the Utah Medical Association have disavowed canvassers captured on video and insisted the signature removal campaign is a valid way to express their concerns, including that the proposal could lead to recreational pot — something advocates strongly deny.

Opponents fired back with their own complaint, alleging a medical-marijuana advocate tried to illegally buy voter data. The Utah Patients Coalition says the man was trying to buy publicly available lists from a hired canvassing firm to counteract what they call misinformation.

While 30 other states have legalized some form of medical marijuana, it’s a tougher road in Utah. A majority of residents belong to the Mormon church, whose leaders recently reiterated their opposition to the proposal.

It’s not the only issue where there’s a firestorm. A pitched battle within the state’s dominant Republican party is also coming to the ballot as the moderate Count My Vote asks to make it easier for candidates to bypass the party’s far-right-leaning caucus-and-convention system.

But conservatives aren’t going down without a fight. The group Keep my Voice asked people to remove their signatures, using a robocall implying that voters had been tricked into signing. Infuriated opponents fired back with allegations of intimidation.

A handful of hired canvassers have been charged with forging signatures on petitions for a few issues, but those names were tossed out.

The dust-ups have drawn in leaders like Republican Gov. Gary Herbert and the top prosecutor in Salt Lake City, Democrat Sim Gill, who have said the issues should go to the ballot so voters can decide.

“We are nice in Utah, but when it comes to these initiatives lines get set pretty quickly,” Perry said. “These are emotional issues.”

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