Gehrke: Opponents are going all-out to stop ballot measures, and that includes stretching the truth

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

If you are among the nearly 400,000 people who signed either the Count My Vote or the medical cannabis petition in the past several months, The Peddlers of Remorse are coming for you.

Opponents of both initiative drives are spending big money to try to persuade voters they were duped, tricked into signing a petition they don’t understand, in some cases through diabolical tactics.

Keep My Voice, the opposition group to Count My Vote, which has been fighting to get rid of the signature-gathering path for candidates to get on the election ballot, has an automated call going out to petition signers — Count My Vote Executive Director Taylor Morgan even got one.

Officials in Count My Vote “are facing criminal charges for forging signatures,” the recording goes. “Not only were hundreds of signatures forged, but most citizens feel they were deceived when they signed the Count My Vote petition.”

Count My Vote started sending out its own phone call Friday featuring former Gov. Mike Leavitt and businesswoman Gail Miller, warning of the “dishonest tactics” of the other side.

“You may have already been called, even threatened or bullied, in an attempt to remove your signature from the petition that will allow Utahns to vote on how their public officials are chosen,” Leavitt says. The call ends with an option to “Press 1” if individuals want to file a complaint with the lieutenant governor’s office.

The goal is simple: If opposition groups can get enough people to remove their names in one or two senate districts where the ballot measures barely qualified, they can kill the whole initiative before voters get a say.

It’s a little extra obstacle the Legislature threw in to an already onerous and costly process, and the truth can get stretched.

Take Keep My Voice’s claims on its automated call. It refers to two employees working for a company hired by Count My Vote to gather signatures who were charged with a series of felonies for submitting 472 forged signatures on the Count My Vote and the medical cannabis initiatives.

That’s 472 out of nearly 400,000 signatures gathered on the two petitions. The suspected forgeries were caught by county clerks who have to verify all of those signatures.

And do “most citizens feel they were deceived” into signing the petition? There’s really no evidence that’s the case. What we can say is that most Utah voters in several years of polling support the signature path to the primary.

Keep My Voice is not alone in trying to scuttle an initiative, either. As my colleague Courtney Tanner reported, the group Drug Safe Utah is leading an effort against the cannabis initiative, as well, paying $25 per hour to those willing to target petition signers in the St. George area.

The organization is led by the Utah Medical Association and the Utah Eagle Forum, and is affiliated, according to documents, with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Metro Narcotics Task Force — a highly unusual role for a federal agency to play.

“All we want to do is educate people about the initiative, and then people can make their own decisions,” said Michelle McOmber, executive director of the Utah Medical Association and head of Drug Safe Utah.

When I asked McOmber if representatives of the LDS Church were involved in planning the knock-out effort, she said, “No comment.”

Doug Andersen, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the church is involved with community members “to best determine what kind of community we want to have.” That includes the Utah Medical Association.

“We are aware of the coalition campaign against the initiative, including their goals, but have neither directed nor coordinated the efforts,” he said.

McOmber said voters don’t seem to realize the medical marijuana initiative is being driven by the Marijuana Policy Project out of Washington, D.C., which wants to open the door to recreational marijuana.

She said many are surprised to know the initiative would allow dispensaries within 300 feet of residential areas and 600 feet of schools and churches, or that it allows a broad array of medical professionals to recommend cannabis to patients.

For the record, the Marijuana Policy Project did give a considerable amount to the marijuana initiative, but Utah’s initiative is not about recreational use. It’s more restrictive than programs in most of the other 29 states that allow medical marijuana.

The buffers around neighborhoods and churches are exactly the same as those for liquor stores, only there will be fewer dispensaries than liquor stores. And the initiative requires a physician to be licensed to prescribe controlled substances in order to be eligible to recommend marijuana to a patient.

All of that can come out over the next nearly six months when all sides will be able to make their case to the public, assuming the measures are on the ballot.

Gov. Gary Herbert has it right on this one. The initiative process is not the ideal way to make law, but he doesn’t like the attempts to “torpedo it by talking them into taking their names off.”

“It’s good to have the people’s voice heard,” Herbert said during his recent monthly news conference. “Let’s have the debate. Let’s hear the pros and cons and let the people speak.”