AUGUSTA, Maine — Backers of a marijuana legalization effort disqualified last week by the Maine secretary of state’s office sued the state on Thursday, saying the decision should be overturned.

The dispute centers on more than 17,000 signatures that were tossed out by Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap and notarized by Stavros Mendros, the president of Olympic Consulting, a Lewiston signature-gathering firm.

Dunlap said he’s confident the case will fail.

Those signatures were among the nearly 48,000 of more than 99,000 signatures collected by referendum proponents that were invalidated by Dunlap’s office last week. Just over 61,000 signatures were needed to get the question on the ballot.

The lawsuit on behalf of a group of petition signers was filed in Kennebec County Superior Court on Thursday afternoon. It says that Dunlap’s office acted outside its authority and asks the court to reverse the office’s decision to toss out nearly 27,000 signatures notarized by Mendros.

David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, the national group that managed the campaign effort, said of those, at least 17,000 are valid signatures. However, he said Dunlap’s office tossed them all.

The lawsuit says that violated the office’s rules — which direct staff to use notary signature issues as a secondary reason to invalidate signatures — and that the office didn’t contact notaries before invalidating signatures.

“It sets a troubling precedent if we’re not allowed to be on the ballot,” Boyer said.

Mendros is a key, controversial figure in Maine’s signature-gathering industry: He worked on a much-criticized referendum proposal for a York County casino, which also was invalidated by Dunlap’s office last week.

In a Thursday statement, Dunlap said his office’s goal in certifying an initiative “is not to disqualify signatures or any other aspect of the petitioning process,” but it’s “incumbent on us to discern that each and every signature was solicited by a Maine voter, made by a Maine voter, and properly notarized.”

“Our petition certification process is designed to assure that every signature on the petitions was made in accordance with the law and we are confident that the Superior Court will recognize our diligence and confirm our decision,” Dunlap said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...