All eyes are on R-71

Washington election workers say they’ve never seen a ballot measure attract as much scrutiny as this year’s Referendum 71, which would strike down a law that broadens the rights of same-sex partners.

Officials say that after a week of verifying voter signatures, every signature could make the difference in the bid to qualify R-71 for the Nov. 3 ballot. Supporters and opponents of the measure are observing the verification of each name.

“It’s going to be very close,” Teresa Glidden, supervisor of initiatives and voter services at the Office of the Secretary of State, said Thursday. “That’s why I am contacting counties daily to tell them which names are missing (a signature) from the electronic files and requesting that they send us an electronic signature.’’

R-71 would overturn the “everything-but-marriage” legislation passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire that broadens the rights for domestic partners on the state’s formal registry. The rights include pensions and related inheritance issues, but the bill won’t take effect at least until R-71 signatures are verified. If R-71 qualifies for the ballot, the domestic-partnership law would remain on hold until voters decide its fate.

After a week of signature checking, state officials said Thursday that the measure’s rate of invalid signatures was running slightly higher than 13.5 percent. Sponsors received only a 12.3 percent buffer on signatures, meaning if the current rate continues, it would not qualify. Many invalid signatures are from people not registered to vote, or their signatures did not match what is on file with county auditors.

“The current rate of invalid signatures reported by the secretary of state’s office in the R-71 signature count gives me great hope that the referendum won’t make the ballot,” state Sen. Ed Murray, a Seattle Democrat and champion of gay rights, said in a statement.

But Pastor Roy Hartwell of the Rivers of Glory Church in Lacey, who was observing the signature verification Thursday on behalf of the Protect Marriage Washington campaign, said the measure still is too close to call.

There are more than 100,000 signatures yet to check, and Glidden said the numbers change from day to day, making it impossible to predict the outcome.

The Office of the Secretary of State added a second shift of workers Thursday evening to speed along the signature inspection and verification.

Besides Glidden’s staffers, volunteers from the two campaigns have been present with at least two – and more recently up to three – observers. Religious conservatives who sponsored R-71 turned in about 137,689 signatures at the July 25 deadline.

Neither opponents nor supporters of R-71 wanted to say whether they thought the process was fair or accurate.

As of late Thursday afternoon, the secretary of state’s office’s Web site said 27,288 names had been checked, 23,593 were accepted and 3,695 were rejected, for a more than 13.5 percent rejection rate.

Of those rejected, 90 were for duplicate signatures, 295 failed to match the signature on file, 3,226 were from nonvoters and 84 lacked a “checkable” voter-registration signature that Glidden is investigating with county auditors.

If the invalidity rate continues, R-71 will not qualify for the ballot, leading to a rejection of 18,644 signatures. That would cause R-71 to fall short by 1,532 signatures.

The last time this kind of scrutiny was given to a measure was in 2006, when Tim Eyman’s I-917 fell a few thousand signatures short of qualifying, Glidden said. Eyman’s car-tabs measure got 219,175 signatures, about 5,705 short of the threshold.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688