Politics & Government

Judge rejects challenge to R-71

OLYMPIA – A judge on Tuesday refused to block a public vote on expanded domestic partnership benefits for gay couples in Washington state.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee rejected the arguments of Washington Families Standing Together, a gay-rights group that claimed Secretary of State Sam Reed improperly accepted thousands of petition signatures that supported putting Referendum 71 on the ballot.

The referendum would put the Legislature’s latest expansion of domestic partnership rights for gay couples on the November ballot.

Washington Families Standing Together chairwoman Anne Levinson said her group hasn’t decided whether to appeal.

“We would only appeal if we could do so swiftly and if we determined that’s the most helpful way to support these families under attack by these groups right now,” she said.

State elections officials have said that all legal challenges need to be completed by Thursday because they need to begin printing materials for the Nov. 3 general election.

“Time is short,” said state elections director Nick Handy. “It’s really time to let the voters make a decision about this issue.”

R-71, sponsored by a conservative political group called Protect Marriage Washington, would ask voters to approve or reject the “everything but marriage” domestic partnership law that state lawmakers passed earlier this year.

The new law would add more legal rights to the state’s established domestic partnerships for gay couples, putting registered partners on par with married couples under state law. Some unmarried heterosexual couples also could register as domestic partners.

A “yes” vote on R-71 would put the newest law into place, and a “no” vote would reject it. The underlying laws laying out domestic partnerships – enacted in 2007 and broadened once already in 2008 – would not be affected.

Levinson’s group argued that tens of thousands of signatures may have been invalid, pointing specifically to the way signature-gatherers filled out their petitions.

By law, the petitions must include a statement that professes all of the voter signatures were gathered properly. In some cases, those declarations were not signed, or simply rubber-stamped with a sponsor’s signature moments before they were turned in to the state.

Reed has accepted petitions without signed declarations since 2006, under legal guidance from the state attorney general.

Election officials revised the number of accepted signatures downward Tuesday, after an audit showed some signatures had been incorrectly accepted. The latest official tally of accepted petition signatures for R-71 was 121,780 – about 1,200 more than the minimum required to qualify for the ballot.