by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
The verification process of the more than 137,000 signatures Protect Marriage Washington turned in to the Secretary of State's office July 25 has now entered its fourth week. The Secretary of State's initial count is expected by the end of the month.
In order for R-71 to make the November ballot, the Secretary of State's office will have to report that 120,577 of the 137,689 signatures turned in by Protect Marriage Washington are valid. R-71 asks 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.
A daily update is available on the R-71 homepage at www.vote.wa.gov.
BY THE NUMBERS
As of August 20 the Secretary of State's office reports that out of 88,191 signatures, 77,637 have been accepted and 10,554 rejected. In addition, 8,822 signatures cannot be found, 44 are pending verification, 821 are a no-match, and 867 signatures are duplicates. That brings the margin of error to 11.97%. In order for R-71 to qualify, the sponsor's margin of error cannot exceed 12.5%. The Secretary of State's office and the Elections Division maintain that, at this point, whether the margin of error will be exceeded is still too close to call.
WEIGHS IN ON R-71
Washington Families Standing Together (WAFST) Chair Anne Levinson spoke with SGN regarding her organization's views on the signature verification process, as well as the direction WAFST will take should R-71 make the ballot.
"First, it's important to know that due to the small number of signatures the proponents of Referendum 71 turned in, the Secretary of State has had to conduct a 100% manual verification process," Levinson told SGN. "Out of 56 initiatives and referenda turned in since as far back as 1990, this is only the fourth time a 100% check has been done. Had the proponents turned in any sort of robust amount of signatures, the Secretary of State could have used the usual sampling method to do the verification."
She said reviewing every single signature takes quite a bit of time, and they need to balance their impending deadline for production for voter materials with the importance of a thorough process.
"Our position is that we do not stand to benefit from either a faster or slower process; our concern is the accuracy of the process, so that a measure is not placed before the voters that does not have the requisite number of valid signatures to be certified," Levinson said.
She said that when WAFST was formed in early June, the coalition assumed that since the number of signatures needed to qualify a referendum is so low, they should prepare for a 100% check.
"So while we were building the coalition and starting the public outreach, we also reviewed the Secretary of State rules and regulations on signature verification and set up our own internal mechanisms for crunching numbers and monitoring any signature review," Levinson told SGN. "We had people on-site the day the signatures were first turned in, and we've had teams of observers in Olympia from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day since then."
WASFT expects the process to continue at least another week, if not more.
"The Secretary of State's staff are working hard, and allegations by the other side that there is a bias based on support for LGBT equality are way off the mark," said Levinson.
She said WAFST has a number of issues with the verification process and are using all appropriate avenues to address them.
"For example, the process provides as many as three layers of review for each 'rejected' signature, while there is only a single determination to accept a signature," said Levinson. "This is intended to make sure that every signer who is a legitimately registered voter has their signature counted, but can result in some inequities in the process."
"We think it is important to vigorously participate in this process and not take anything for granted," she told SGN.
"If, by our diligence, we can keep this referendum - which may potentially result in the loss of important protections to thousands of domestic partners and their children - off the ballot, that is the best result," Levinson said.
State law, she said, allows observation of the verification process to instill public confidence in the result.
"We plan to hold the State to that standard, but have no intention of doing so by casting aspersions on their integrity," said Levinson. "We will do so by knowing all of the laws, rules and regulations in detail, pursuing any mistakes in interpretation or implementation, and participating in a respectful and professional way. This is a very challenging and difficult process, but the implications are too important to sit on the sidelines and await results."
In the meantime, WAFST is moving forward quickly with phone banks, fundraising, and all the other work needed to win should R-71 be placed on the November General Election ballot.
"Because the signature count has gone on so long, we really need people who have been waiting to contribute some money and some time now," Levinson said, adding, "There are less than 10 weeks before ballots for the November election are mailed. Remember to tell all your friends and family [that] if this is on the ballot, voters will be asked if they want to approve or reject the domestic partnership law. To keep the law, a majority will have to vote to approve it."
For more information on WAFST, visit the organization online at www.wafst.org.
SPEED AND ACCURACY
CALLED INTO QUESTION
On August 19, the sponsors of Referendum 71 accused the State Elections Division of rushing the signature-verification process and aligning themselves with the "homosexual lobby."
The Faith and Freedom Network, part of the campaign group Protect Marriage Washington, said in August 19 blog and e-mail distribution, "Speed has replaced accuracy."
"As the homosexual lobby has increased their pressure on the secretary to 'hurry up' on processing the signatures, the error rate has risen," Faith and Freedom Network President Gary Randall wrote. "The hurry-up plan was put in place as the homosexual lobby discovered that the faster the checkers checked, the more names were discarded as not valid."
Randall said he was told, "With a possibility of a lawsuit and other pressing matters related to regular responsibilities, they needed to 'get this completed.'"
"Our volunteer observers, who are pastors, secretaries, doctors, tech experts, stay-at-home moms and any number of other people willing to give their time for something they believe in, have experienced a dismissive and often adversarial attitude from the staff, and certainly from the homosexual activists' representatives in the office," said Randall. He added, "It is common knowledge that there is a warm and, in some cases, familial relationship between the elections office checkers and the observers representing the homosexual activists. This is something our people have addressed repeatedly."
Election officials at the Secretary of State's office immediately pushed back, saying they strongly defend their crew of signature-checkers. In an August 19 statement from Secretary of State spokesman David Ammons, election officials said signature-checkers are "certainly not showing bias one way or the other about the legislation process."
Secretary Reed has declined to comment, but, according to Ammons, has stood by a response from the Elections Division saying the criticism was ill-founded.
"Regarding speed, signature-checkers continue to follow established search methods and be thorough when researching each signature on a petition sheet," the Elections Division wrote.
As for deadlines and potential lawsuits, they said, "We have a deadline to meet for printing the ballots. However, there is ample time to meet this deadline and conduct a fair and thorough verification process. We are aware of the potential for lawsuits - from both sides - but the threat of lawsuits is not a factor in decisions made about managing the pace of the verification process."
In response to the claim that the increase in the invalid rate is because signature-checkers are not being careful, the Elections Division said, "Since beginning the verification process, our office has told the public and Ref. 71 sponsors that the invalid rate will increase throughout the process and that duplicate signatures are the most significant factor in this increase."
The Elections Division said the trend is "mathematically provable" and "has occurred with every ballot measure our office has verified in the last 20 years." It is not unique to R-71, they said.
THREE ATTEMPTS TO VERIFY
A REJECTED SIGNATURE
Amidst the confusion and accusations surrounding the weeks-long signature verification process, Secretary of State's office Assistant Director of Elections Shane Hamlin told SGN the signature-checkers are top-notch.
"There are up to three different attempts to find a signature that is rejected by the first signature-checker," Hamlin explained. "The signatures are first checked by a signature-checker. Signatures which are not found or which do not have matching signatures are rejected by the signature-checker. All rejected signatures are then reviewed by a master-checker, a more experienced checker."
He said the Elections Division master-checkers "have worked at this for several years and use more sophisticated search techniques. As a result of this experience, they are more effective at finding voter registration records."
He said the vast majority of situations in which a master-checker would change the decision of a signature-checker would be where the master-checker is able to locate a signer's voter registration record, which the signature-checker could not previously find.
"We are also running a third check using the current voter registration database to look for any signatures not found in the first two checks to ensure we have picked up the most recent registrants," Hamlin told SGN.
Hamlin said in the case of ethnic names, such as Russian or Vietnamese, the master-checker will search for the signature by reversing the first and last name provided on the petition sheet.
"Naturalized citizens from Asian countries and from Eastern European countries are used to giving their last name - or family name - first when signing a document or identifying themselves," he said.
The Secretary's office is sharing the same information with observers from both sides at about the same time, Hamlin said. "The discussions between the observers and the Secretary of State's office is fluid and ongoing."
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