Gay-rights group sue to block Ref. 71; backers can't hide donors' names, PDC rules
Gay-rights supporters have sued the Secretary of State, hoping to temporarily bar elections officials from declaring that a referendum of a new law expanding state benefits for same-sex couples qualifies for the November ballot. Also Thursday, the state Public Disclosure Commission decided the identities of donors to Referendum 71 will not be exempt from public disclosure.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A group supporting Washington's expanded gay-rights law has sued the secretary of state in an attempt to keep Referendum 71 from qualifying for the November ballot.
Washington Families Standing Together says it's concerned the Secretary of State's Office has accepted signatures that should have been rejected for the referendum, which seeks to put the domestic-partnership law up for a public vote.
Thursday, the same day the lawsuit was filed, the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) decided the group backing R-71 would not be exempt from disclosing the identities of its donors.
And that's before all the signatures have even been checked.
The lawsuit was filed in King County Superior Court. Hearings are expected early next week before Judge Julie Spector.
"We have brought this legal action in the hope that we can both ensure that all Washington families have the rights to which they are entitled, and to avoid a costly and divisive referendum which Washington state simply cannot afford during this economic crisis," said Josh Friedes, spokesman for Washington Families.
The suit is the latest salvo in an increasingly contentious campaign involving multiple lawsuits, name-calling, suspicion and threats.
The Legislature last spring expanded the state's domestic-partnership law, giving registered same-sex partners the same state benefits as married couples.
In July, a group called Protect Marriage Washington turned in 137,689 signatures, seeking to overturn the law by placing it before voters.
At least 120,577 valid signatures are needed for R-71 to qualify, meaning no more than 12.4 percent of signatures can be found invalid. As of Thursday, the rejection rate was 11.81 percent.
The Secretary of State's Office predicts it will complete its signature check by Tuesday.
Gary Randall, one of the main organizers to repeal the new law, called Thursday's lawsuit "a last-ditch effort" on the part of gay-rights supporters.
But leaders of Washington Families said it was the result of watching the signature-checking process.
They're concerned with two types of signatures they say don't comply with state law but that have been accepted by the Secretary of State's Office.
The first involves signatures of people who Washington Families believe were not registered to vote at the time they signed the petition.
The second involves signatures collected by gatherers who did not sign the backs of the petitions.
The suit seeks a temporary restraining order to keep the secretary of state from certifying R-71 until those signatures are examined and the ones deemed invalid are thrown out. At that point, said Anne Levinson chairwoman of Washington Families, elections officials could re-tally the signatures and determine whether the measure qualifies for the ballot.
Earlier Thursday, the PDC denied a request by Protect Marriage to redact and seal the names, addresses and occupations of donors. Donor information already had been made public, in accordance with state law.
The group had cited threats of violence against supporters and churches in its request.
Larry Stickney, a key organizer behind R-71, told the PDC he's received death threats and hundreds of "vile, obscene, threatening, nasty" e-mails. He said he found someone in his yard a few weeks ago photographing his house.
But the commission said the group had not proved that disclosure of the information would result in "unreasonable hardship" to contributors, and that keeping the names from the public would thwart the purpose of the public-disclosure law: to avoid secrecy in campaigns.
While Protect Marriage did provide the commission with some threatening e-mails and blog postings, it "provided no evidence from or about donors that have demonstrated that they have received threats of violence against their lives or property," or that they were being targeted for boycotts, PDC Assistant Director Doug Ellis said at the hearing.
That ruling applies only to donors to R-71.
A separate request from Protect Washington to withhold the names of people who signed the petitions is still pending before a federal judge.
The judge has granted a temporary restraining order withholding the names until a hearing next Thursday.
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or email@example.com
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