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SF County Commission approves pot referendum

SANTA FE – The Santa Fe County Commission on Tuesday voted 4-0 to put proposed decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana within the Santa Fe city limits on the ballot for the Nov. 4 general election.

But questions remain as to whether there’s enough room on the ballot to publish the question.

State Secretary of State Dianna Duran and her Bureau of Elections Director Bobbi Shearer outlined several concerns about whether there is enough space on the ballot to handle the pot proposal and having different ballots in precincts split between city and county voters.

But County Clerk Geraldine Salazar was confident any issues could be overcome. She said her office had experience dealing with ballots that list different issues and have to be separated.

She also said the city clerk’s office has experimented with mock ballots on both 17-inch and 22-inch ballots and that she believed fitting the question on the ballot was “doable.”

The effort to get the measure before city voters in November was led by ProgressNow New Mexico and Drug Policy Action, an arm of Drug Policy Alliance of New Mexico. They collected more than 5,000 signatures from registered voters in Santa Fe, enough to have it placed on the ballot as per city charter. But it’s the County Commission that is in charge of adopting a ballot for the general election.

Under current state law, first-time offenders in possession of less than an ounce of marijuana are charged with a petty misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $50 to $100 and imprisonment of not more than 15 days. The ballot proposal calls for possession to be treated as a civil infraction, punishable only by a fine of no more than $25.

Shearer said Santa Fe’s charter requires the question be placed on the ballot in English and Spanish. It also must appear on the front page of the ballot. “So it looks to us there’s probably not enough real estate on the ballot to accommodate this length of question,” she said.

Duran added that there are already five constitutional questions and three General Obligation Bond questions going on the ballot. She also said there were concerns about whether the vote-counting systems had the ability to accommodate a physically larger ballot.

Another option, Duran said, was to hold a separate election with a separate ballot on the same day as the general election. But that would require more voting machines and increased costs for the city, she said.

Other concerns the Secretary of State’s office had were that the question would only appear in Santa Fe, requiring more than one ballot to be available in precincts split between the city and county and potentially causing confusion at the polls.

Emily Kaltenbach, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the commission “did the right thing” to move the proposal forward and allow voters to have their say on the issue. She said she was surprised to see that Duran’s concerns “rose to the level” that she personally appeared at Tuesday’s meeting.

In Albuquerque, where councilors have voted to put a similar measure on the ballot, Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver – Republican Duran’s Democratic opponent in November – said holding a separate city election at the same time as the statewide one would create logistical challenges and added costs. Putting the city questions on their own piece of paper, for example, would require extra voting machines, she said.

There could also be voter confusion if the city and county clerks pick different polling locations, Toulouse Oliver said. With the election just 70 days away, time to plan is running short, she said. Mayor Richard Berry could still veto the pot ballot proposal.

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