Secretary of State Sam Reed may have accepted tens of thousands of invalid signatures before he certified a November referendum on expanding domestic partnership benefits, a King County judge said Wednesday.
But state law requires that any challenge to Reed’s decision be brought in Thurston County, where the state capital of Olympia is, King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector said in rejecting a lawsuit that sought to block Referendum 71 from the ballot.
Supporters of expanded legal benefits for gay couples said they’d file a new lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court today – the same day a federal judge in Tacoma was scheduled to hear arguments over whether the R-71 signature petitions should be made public.
“Judge Spector issued a very strong affirmation of the deficiencies in the signatures and petitions accepted by the secretary of state,” said Anne Levinson, a lawyer who has led the effort to keep R-71 off the ballot. “If those petitions had been correctly disqualified, the measure would not have had enough signatures to be certified.”
Stephen Pidgeon, an attorney for Protect Marriage Washington, the group pushing R-71, criticized the judge’s ruling, arguing that if she didn’t have jurisdiction, she had no business making findings about the signatures.
“If they want to bring this to Thurston County now, well, OK, good luck,” Pidgeon said. “This was the most scrutinized signature check ever. If those signatures are subject to even closer scrutiny, we believe many more signatures will be found to be valid.”
Reed announced Wednesday morning that of nearly 138,000 signatures turned in by Protect Marriage Washington, 122,007 were valid – 1,430 more than necessary. Though the signatures would normally be public under state law, U.S. District Benjamin Settle has temporarily blocked their release because R-71 supporters are claiming harassment and threats by their political opponents; he scheduled arguments on that issue for today.
Spector noted several problems with the signature petitions. However, she said it’s unclear whether state law prevents the secretary of state from accepting signature petitions that don’t meet legal requirements.
Reed’s spokesman, David Ammons, said the judge affirmed the office’s discretion in accepting signatures.
Protect Marriage Washington opposes the so-called “everything but marriage” law, which would grant registered domestic partners all legal benefits enjoyed by married heterosexuals. The law was supposed to take effect July 26, but the referendum campaign put it on hold.
Among the problems the judge cited: Tens of thousands of signatures may have been invalid because declarations on some petitions – attesting that voters signed knowingly, and were not paid or wrongly induced to provide their signatures – were left blank or rubber-stamped moments before being turned in.
Since 2006, Reed’s office accepted such petitions under legal guidance from the state attorney general, noting that the state law merely requires the declarations to be printed on the back of signature petitions.
In addition, many people were not registered voters when they signed the petitions: Signature gatherers had them fill out registration cards at the same time they signed in support of R-71. Reed’s office argued that it was long-standing practice and good policy to accept such signatures because it increased participation in the democratic process.
Finally, Spector noted, some people were apparently lied to by signature gatherers, who told them, for example, that the expanded benefits would force public schools to teach that same-sex marriage and homosexuality are normal.