by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
After the Referendum 71 sponsors turned in 137,689 signatures July 25, the formal count to verify them began immediately. So did a giant guessing game. Do they have the signatures they need? How many are valid? Amid the counting, the Washington Secretary of State's office has been transparent in their release of information, and some of Washington's higher-ups have already weighed in on possible outcomes. "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," said Senator Ed Murray in a statement released August 6.
Late last week, the Secretary of State's office completed a raw count of the voter signatures that were submitted by sponsors of R-71. The numbers stood at 14 percent more than the minimum needed to place the domestic partnership law on the November ballot. R-71 asks the voters to approve or disapprove of Senate Bill 5688, which grants registered same-sex domestic partners the same rights and responsibilities as married couples in Washington State. The bill would have taken effect July 26, but is now on hold while the R-71 signature-by-signature check is pending.
Since the beginning of the verifying process, both sides of the R-71 issue have sent observation teams to Olympia.
"The verification process is a governed part of the referendum process," said Josh Friedes, Washington Families Standing Together campaign manager. "We've had a wonderful team of volunteers who've been trained by our incredible volunteer leadership team, led by Mona Smith and Laurie Jenkins."
Friedes said there has been an incredible interest from people around the region who want to volunteer as verifiers. He said everyone seems interested in the process and the outcome, and people "want to be engaged."
As of August 6, the Secretary of State's Office said State Elections workers have processed 23,457 names. Out of those checked, 20,335 were accepted and 3,122 were rejected, for a total error rate of 13.31 percent so far. That number paints a bleak picture for R-71 sponsors, who need to maintain a daily error rate of 12.42 percent in order to meet the required 120,577 valid signatures to make the November ballot.
Breaking the numbers down further, State Election workers found a total of 68 duplicates, 221 no-match, a staggering 2,764 non-voters, and 69 missing a checkable voter-registration signature.
Some of the numbers are subject to change, particularly the signatures that are missing a checkable voter-registration signature. The Secretary of State's office said those signatures were at least temporarily not counted because the database didn't include a signature that could be used for checking. In an August 6 statement on the Secretary of State's website, it says that all or most of those signatures could eventually be shifted over to the "accepted" stack when their home counties report back with a legible signature.
"There's a bit of confusion out there about how the count is trending because of an inconsistency in the math used to report the rate," said Sen. Ed Murray on August 6.
Murray said the Secretary of State's blog first reported that the error rate had to stay under 14.2 percent for the referendum to qualify, referred to as "the cushion."
"That cushion was derived by dividing the number of signatures turned in by the number needed to qualify and subtracting 1," said Murray. "With the cumulative invalid rate at 13.3 percent as of Wednesday, many have been led to believe that the referendum supports are within their cushion."
This is wrong, he said.
"It's confusing when one method is used to determine the overall rates and the opposite method is used in the daily reports," Murray said. "Either way, when consistent methods are used, the current rate of invalid signatures clearly suggests that R-71 won't make the ballot."
DUPED SIGNERS SEEK TO REMOVE SIGNATURES
Also this week, the Secretary of State's office answered a number of inquiries about voters who wanted to withdraw their signatures from the petition sheets that have been turned in to the state for verification. During their quest for petition signatures, R-71 sponsors were routinely accused of tricking people into signing a petition "in support of LGBT marriage."
Nick Handy, state director of elections, said, "The Office of the Secretary of State has taken the position that signatures on initiative and referendum petitions may not be removed from petitions after the petitions have been submitted to the office."
Handy said this rule follows the general policy that a deadline must be established, beyond which the number of signatures submitted is fixed. In this case, that deadline was July 25.
The analogy Handy used is how a voter may not change his or her vote after the deadline of an election, even if the voter feels he or she was misled into voting for a particular candidate.
NAMES RELEASE BLOCKED
In a development last week before the actual signature verification process began, a federal court order blocking the Secretary of State from releasing the names of the people who signed the R-71 petitions was granted on "the basis of merits" that the release of the names may subject the petition signers to harassment. Two groups, WhoSigned.org and the Washington Coalition for Open Government, have requested copies of the petitions. The court order is temporary and a full hearing on the matter is set for September 3 in Tacoma.
SIGNATURE CHECKERS WORKING IN SHIFTS
Shane Hamlin, assistant state elections director in charge of the referendum operation, announced August 6 that a second shift of signature checkers will be brought on so the checking can be accelerated. According to Hamlin, the day shift will work from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the swing shift will work from 3:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
"We've been impressed with the long hours the Secretary of State's staff are putting into the verifying process," Friedes told SGN. "I think it is important that we come to a conclusion as quickly as possible."
With the new workforce, the Elections Division is hoping to wrap up the full-signature check sometime during the week of August 17. They also announced that a daily update is now available on the R-71 homepage at www.vote.wa.gov.
GENERAL ELECTION APPROACHING
The November 3 General Election is only 90 days away. That election will be the first completely mail-in ballot voting in the state of Washington. Though that doesn't give Washington Families Standing Together very long to organize, alongside Equal Rights Washington, they've begun to communicate that R-71 requires an "approve" vote in order to retain the law (i.e., keep the same-sex domestic partnership law). If R-71 is on the ballot in November, voters in favor of the domestic partnership law will be voting to "approve" R-71. Those trying to repeal the law will be voting to "reject" it.
"It's very important that we not wait to make sure we are fully prepared to deal with the referendum," said Friedes. "Washington Families Standing Together has taken this threat seriously, which is why, long before the first signature collectors were on the street, we built a campaign."
Friedes said the campaign involves all the aspects that one would expect to see in a major campaign. He said if the referendum makes the ballot, they will launch a vibrant field campaign, doorbelling and canvassing, as well as the continued use of the phone bank already in operation at the Washington Families Standing Together Seattle office.
"We encourage people to come to the office Monday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. to help at the phone bank," Friedes told SGN. "People who wish to volunteer at events can go to the organization's website and register to volunteer at an existing event, or register an event that they think Washington Families Standing Together should attend."
Also available at www.washingtonfamiliesstandingtogether.com are printable placards that say "Approve R-71." Friedes said although the referendum has not made the ballot yet, his organization is working as though it already has.
"We need to speak to ambivalent voters. They must be the focus of our conversation, not those who strongly oppose same-sex domestic partnerships," he said. "I think it is important we remember that even though 137,000 people did sign the R-71 petitions, that represents a tiny percentage of the overall electorate, so we should not be angry with the Washington electorate. The number of signatures collected in no way suggests that people in Washington oppose the recognition of Gay and Lesbian families."
Freides says he understands people might want to wait and see if the referendum makes the ballot before they donate money to Washington Families Standing Together. But, he says, he would urge those people to make a modest contribution now. He said early money makes an enormous difference in a campaign, and he doesn't want Washington to make the same mistakes that other states have made when fighting for LGBT equality.
"If people have questions or ideas, we really welcome phone calls and e-mails," he said. "This campaign belongs to the entire LGBT and allied community, and its success rests on the engagement of the entire community."
The campaign can be reached at (206) 324-2570, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joining the fight to keep the current law, according to an Equal Rights Washington press release, are more than 50,000 people, over 150 organizations and 90 clergy and faith-based organizations across the state who have already taken a stand in support of domestic partnership.
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