Twenty-nine notaries public listed incorrect information on their notary seal expiration dates on petitions to refer a law expanding the state smoking ban to a public vote, South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson said.
Nelson said a review of disallowed petition signatures by his office found problems with the way those notaries signed petitions containing more than 2,000 signatures to refer the expanded ban to the November 2010 general election.
“The issue affecting a little over 2,000 signature lines are notary publics that put an incomplete or incorrect expiration date,” Nelson said.
That number indicates a pervasive notary problem throughout the petitions drive, said smoking ban supporter Jennifer Stalley of the American Cancer Society.
“It’s not just one person who made a mistake. It’s a widespread issue of how things were being notarized,” Stalley said. “It’s obviously a wider spread issue. And it’s not just one person holding things up. It’s an issue with complying with the notary standards.”
Larry Mann of Rapid City, a coordinator of the petition drive, said 29 notaries with problems were more than he expected. But he continued to argue that a “technicality” such as a wrong or incomplete expiration date for an otherwise valid notary seal should not invalidate more than 2,000 otherwise legitimate signatures.
“To be thrown out on a technicality is, I think, not the way the system intended,” Mann said. “I noticed that a while back I wrote ‘2008’ on one of my checks. And you know what? They cashed it.”
Mann represents a coalition of bar and gambling businesses that are fighting to keep the smoking ban from being expanded to their establishments. After the 2009 state Legislature approved and Gov. Mike Rounds signed a bill to ban smoking, those businesses hustled to organize a petition drive to refer the law to the 2010 election.
The coalition handed in more than 25,400 signatures about a week before the law was to take effect July 1, well more than the 16,776 signatures required.
Nelson initially certified the referendum after checking 5 percent of the signatures through a computer program designed to give a random sampling. He estimated 28 percent of the signatures were invalid for one reason or another. That still left more than 18,000 valid signatures, however, plenty to refer the ban.
But Stalley’s group appealed the decision after their own count indicated that almost 9,900 signatures, close to 39 percent, were invalid. She said there were a variety of problems, including duplicate signatures, unregistered voters and the notary problems.
Nelson’s office again checked the petitions focusing on those flagged by Stalley’s group and determined that more than 8,800 – including those from the 29 notaries with expiration date problems — were not valid. That meant the petition drive had fallen about 200 signatures short of the 16,776 required.
The law would have gone into effect in days, but Mann’s group succeeded Monday in getting a court order to block the law, pending a trial. The issue is whether to count more than 2,000 signatures that were invalidated because the 29 notaries included incomplete or incorrect expiration dates for their seals.
There were actually notary expiration problems on more than 2,500 signatures, but several hundred of those had other problems which would invalidate them. Still, more than 2,000 would likely be valid if not for the notary expiration date issue.
In the original 5 percent random computer check, Nelson’s office didn’t look for wrongly entered notary expiration dates or instances where people signed twice. He said depending on the outcome of the legal challenge, he’s likely to review the 5-percent sampling to see whether changes need to be made.
The 2,000 or so signatures with the incorrect or incomplete expirations dates were essentially the difference between Nelson’s original estimate of valid signatures and the revised finding, Nelson said.
“Our initial 5 percent sample was very, very close,” Nelson said. “But the two things we didn’t look at were the notary expiration dates and duplicate signatures. My gut feeling is that we’re really getting a true sample.”
Mann said he expects a trial on the issue within two to three weeks.
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