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A group trying to legalize adult-use marijuana on Montana’s 2020 ballot is suing Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton over the state’s ban on electronic signature gathering due to the difficulty and danger of collecting in-person signatures during the coronavirus pandemic.

New Approach Montana filed its lawsuit in state court April 6, and is asking the court for an exemption to laws requiring that signatures to qualify ballot initiatives be gathered in-person, and to delay the deadline to submit signatures from June 19 to Aug. 3.

Political director for New Approach Pepper Petersen said Wednesday that while the group believes it could collect the necessary number of signatures in person to reach the ballot by the extant deadline, doing so comes with the risk of contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

“I don’t feel like we’re screwed, I just don’t feel like we could do it responsibly,” Petersen said.

According to the complaint, the plaintiffs aren’t seeking to permanently change the signature-gathering process in Montana, but only to gain an exemption for New Approach for this election season, given the extraordinary circumstances presented by the pandemic.

Owing to the peculiarities of Montana law, New Approach has to pass two measures on the ballot to legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older. One initiative would legalize marijuana and establish a regulatory framework. The other, a constitutional initiative, would amend the state constitution to include marijuana alongside alcohol as forbidden to 18-year olds, who are legal adults for all other purposes.

As there are greater requirements to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, New Approach has to collect about three times as many signatures as other ballot groups to put its proposals before voters in November.

Petersen said that if the state chooses to oppose New Approach’s lawsuit, he will consider that an ideological decision in light of Republican control of the secretary of state’s office and the Montana Department of Justice, and historical Republican opposition to expanding voting rights.

Republican-dominated legislatures in Western states founded with strong popular referenda rights, including Montana, have spent the last two decades making it harder for citizens to place measures on the ballot. A requirement that a certain percentage of ballot signatures be gathered from a broad range of Montana counties was struck down by federal courts in 2005, only to be brought back with a requirement based on legislative districts instead.

(The unenforceable county-based requirements are still on the books, but two constitutional amendments on the November ballot would update their language. Because these amendments were referred to voters by the Legislature, signatures need not be collected to place them on the ballot.)

The lawyer representing New Approach in its case is former Assistant Attorney General Jim Molloy. Petersen said Molloy was brought in to help draft the proposed initiatives due to his expertise in Montana constitutional law.

The Montana secretary of state’s office and Montana Department of Justice have yet to file a response to the lawsuit, and did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

An initial hearing for the case will be held via teleconference on April 28 in Missoula’s Fourth Judicial District Court.

Hunter Pauli is a Seattle-born, Missoula-based freelance investigative reporter and a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.You can follow Hunter on Twitter.