Both sides complain of Ref. 71 signature check, prepare to appeal
For a month, rotating teams of gay-rights supporters and opponents have crowded into a basement room here, watching as state workers check every signature on Referendum 71, which seeks to overturn the most recent expansion of gay rights. They have not become friends.
Seattle Times staff reporter
OLYMPIA — For a month, rotating teams of gay-rights supporters and opponents have crowded into a basement room, watching as state workers check every signature on a referendum that seeks to overturn the latest expansion of gay rights.
They have not become friends. In fact, they've had complaints.
Religious conservatives with Protect Marriage Washington, the group trying to put Referendum 71 on the ballot, speak of a chumminess between elections workers and gay-rights supporters that excludes them.
They've complained about signature checkers who wear headphones while they work, saying the music could be distracting. They've accused staff of speeding up the count, which they believe has led to the rejection of more signatures. They've complained that supervisors have rolled their eyes at their concerns.
Gay-rights supporters, who represent Washington Families Standing Together, say they prefer to rise above the squabbles. But they have raised concerns about the legitimacy of thousands of what they call questionable signatures accepted as valid.
Both sides have accused the other of violating rules observers are to follow.
With the count within days of wrapping up, everyone is documenting everything. The measure needs at least 120,577 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. No matter the outcome, a lawsuit is almost certain.
"I'm not personally interested in going to court against a Republican secretary of state," said Gary Randall, with Protect Marriage Washington. "But we will if we're not satisfied with this."
Anne Levinson, chair of Washington Families, said the group likely would sue if issues it raises are not addressed before the count is final. "It wouldn't be our first choice, because we respect the public's right to have a referendum and to vote," she said. "But if we think errors in the count were based on failure to comply with state law, then we'll raise those."
Tuesday finish expected
State officials recognize the passions on both sides of the referendum, likely the most scrutinized in state history.
They say they've tried to accommodate observers, providing them lunch space in the basement and allowing each side to bring an additional observer into the room.
The transparency surrounding the count has been unprecedented. Election Division staff from the Secretary of State's Office produce a daily blog devoted to the results, and people can follow the count on Twitter.
"We're making history," said Teresa Glidden, a division supervisor. "I feel quite privileged to be a part of it."
The Legislature in 2007 established the domestic-partnership law and last spring approved an expansion that gives registered partners the same state-provided benefits as married couples.
Gay-rights advocates say that ensures all families equal treatment under state law. Referendum 71 backers say it makes domestic partnerships legally indistinguishable from marriage.
Two shifts of checkers are verifying the 137,689 signatures submitted by Protect Marriage on July 25.
Tensions are high because, after a month of counting, it is still too close to call. State Elections Director Nick Handy is predicting completion by Tuesday.
To qualify, no more than 12.4 percent of signatures can be found invalid. As of Wednesday, the rejection rate was 11.85 percent.
There are three levels of signature review.
First-line checkers try to find each name among the 3.7 million registered voters statewide. Using a database created June 19, the petition signature is compared to the one on the voter-registration record, if one is found.
Rejected signatures get a second look by more experienced checkers.
And the division last week added signature checkers who use the live statewide voter database to try to locate signers who may have registered more recently and aren't in the database from June 19.
"You just have to focus"
Three observers from each side are allowed in the counting room at one time. They can't interact with checkers or write down names or addresses of petition signers — a rule both sides have accused the other of violating.
If they have concerns about a signature, they can note where the signature appears on the petition — information that could be used later to challenge results.
"I have total confidence in the checkers. ... They know their jobs," said Glidden, the elections supervision.
Jean Womer, who retired as a supervisor in the division and comes back each year to do part-time work, said checkers "never get used to all the scrutiny."
"You are always conscious of someone wondering if what you're doing is right or wrong. You just have to focus on what you're doing and try to tune the rest out."
Valarie Hartwell, who with her husband, Roy, are lead observers for Protect Marriage, noted that scrutiny by observers led the division to check signatures against the list of voters registered more recently.
Hartwell said she saw a checker reject the signature of a relative of Larry Stickney, the group's campaign manager. Knowing the relative had in recent months registered to vote, Stickney met with elections officials to clear the matter up.
But while that move may have appeased one side, it bothered the other.
Adding the third level of review gives an advantage to referendum backers, gay-rights supporters say.
For one thing, state law requires people to be registered before signing a ballot measure, they say. Under this new level of checking, gay-rights supporters say, even signatures of those who registered to vote after the petitions were delivered to the state July 25 would be accepted.
"The fact of the matter is, in an effort to make as many signatures valid as possible, the current process favors three bites of the apple to the side trying to add more signatures to the count and only one to the question of whether a signature was a legally valid signature," Levinson said.
Election officials say the process is designed to favor accepting rather than rejecting signatures. They say that it is customary for referendum campaigns to conduct voter-registration drives.
And because petitions aren't dated, otherwise valid signatures that appear in the live database must be accepted, said Katie Blinn, assistant director of elections.
"We are strong proponents of voter registration," Blinn said. "If there's a topic on the ballot that drives people to get interested in voting, we're all for that."
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