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Thurston County judge denies R-71 challenge
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Thurston County judge denies R-71 challenge

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

Thurston County Superior Court Judge, Thomas McPhee, said Referendum 71 will be on the statewide November 3 General Election ballot. The hearing of the lawsuit brought by Washington Families Standing Together (WAFST) came after the judge heard arguments at 1:30 p.m. in the county courthouse in Olympia on September 8.

McPhee dismissed the WAFST challenge in a statement delivered from the bench where the judge sided with the Secretary of State's handling of signature-checks for R-71.

R-71 asks voters to approve or reject Senate Bill 5688, which grants registered same-sex domestic partners the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual married couples in Washington State.

Last week, Secretary of State Sam Reed ruled that R-71 had obtained enough signatures to go before voters.

The lawsuit, filed by WAFST, asked the judge to halt the vote on R-71 because Secretary Reed improperly accepted thousands of petition signatures that supported putting the referendum on the ballot.

On September 9, WAFST told SGN they would not pursue litigation before the Washington State Supreme Court. Rather, they would focus their energy and efforts towards the Approve Referendum 71 Campaign.

"We would only appeal if we could do so swiftly, and if we determine that's the most helpful way to support these families who are under attack by these groups rights now," said WAFST Chair Anne Levinson after McPhee issued his ruling Tuesday afternoon.

"Due to the compressed time period, the lack of access to necessary information and relevant documents and the fact that election day is less than eight weeks away, WAFST will not be appealing so that all of our energies can be focused on ensuring that families are not put at risk by the attempted repeal of our state's domestic partnership law," Anne Levinson, WAFST Chair, told SGN in a written statement. "At the end of the day, WAFST must concentrate its energies toward preserving the domestic partnership law enacted by the legislature and signed into law by the governor without the distraction of an ongoing debate over which of these two rulings is correct."

Levinson said there are two Superior Court rulings on a number of questions raised as to the legality of the referenda process and the signature count. The Court's findings and conclusions are strikingly different, so the law will remain unsettled until there is a future challenge, she said.

She said the Court's ruling created an unfortunate split in the interpretation of the applicable law, adding that there was a similar split between the Secretary of State's office, which originally wanted to enforce the plain language of the Constitution and laws, and the Attorney General's Office, which directed the Secretary of State to ignore these violations.

"The Court last week concluded that the Secretary of State's instruction to his staff to accept signatures of voters who were not registered voters when they signed the petitions, or even by the time the petitions were turned in, was in contravention of the State Constitution and law," Levinson said. "The Court found that the Secretary essentially rendered recent anti-fraud legislation meaningless when it accepted petitions with unsigned or fraudulently signed circulator declarations. The Court found, as well, that the Secretary had not addressed the allegations of fraud either in its enforcement of the law or in its review of signatures, including those who had requested their names be removed from petitions after having been misled."

She said the actions by the opponents of the domestic partnership law to hide the names of signers, hide the names of donors, hide the payments paid to signature gatherers and refuse to put true and correct names on the backs of petitions all played a role in the inability of the Secretary or the parties to ensure the integrity of the referenda process.

TWO TYPES OF SIGNATURES IN QUESTION
The WAFST lawsuit specifically called into question two types of signatures accepted by the Secretary of State's office.

The first type of questioned signatures involved those collected by signature gatherers who did not sign declarations, printed on the R-71 petitions, saying they were the individuals who circulated the petitions, and that the people who signed "did so knowingly."

The Secretary of State has said that although a declaration must be printed on the back of each petition form, it does not have to be signed.

The judge agreed. He said state law says that "the language of the declaration appear on the back of the petition, but does not require that the declaration be completed or signed by a signature gatherer."

The other signatures that WAFST challenged involved people who were not registered to vote at the time they signed the petition.

In response, the Secretary of State argued that as long as signers are listed in the voter-registration file by the time their signatures are checked, the actual date of registration is irrelevant.

Again, the judge agreed. He said Reed's office knows the date when someone registers to vote, but "what cannot be known is the date when the voter & signed the petition, because that information is omitted from the statutory requirement for referendum petitions." During his ruling, McPhee accepted more than 40 signatures of voters whose registration entered the voter rolls after the sponsors' July 25 signature turn-in deadline.

Basically, state law doesn't require a date.

"We're pleased and gratified with the judge's strong ruling, and now it's time to move on, to get the Voters Pamphlet printed and ballots prepared," said State Elections Director Nick Handy. "It was a close check, and we used great care in checking each of the signatures. There were many legal issues here, and we're happy that the judge has concurred with our handling of the process. I was so glad to see how respectful the judge was in protecting the people's right to referendum."

Following McPhee's ruling, Secretary Reed congratulated the elections team for its signature-checking process in a high-pressure, high-visibility setting. Additionally, Reed praised the work of the Attorney General's office in defending the Elections Division.

WAFST's previous attempt to block R-71 was turned away last week in King County for technical reasons. However, King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector said she was concerned Reed may have accepted invalid signatures. This week, McPhee overwhelmingly disagreed.

On September 3, the Secretary of State's office told the printer to include R-71 in the Voters Pamphlet, which is sent to 3 million Washington households.

"Our view is it is time to move forward with this election," Handy said. "It's really time to let voters make a decision about this issue."

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