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Originally published Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 5:03 PM

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Washington judge rejects challenge to R-71

Secretary of State Sam Reed may have accepted tens of thousands of invalid signatures before he certified a November referendum on expanding domestic partnership benefits, a King County judge said Wednesday.

Associated Press Writer

SEATTLE —

Secretary of State Sam Reed may have accepted tens of thousands of invalid signatures before he certified a November referendum on expanding domestic partnership benefits, a King County judge said Wednesday.

But state law requires that any challenge to Reed's decision be brought in Thurston County, where the state capitol in Olympia is, King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector said in rejecting a lawsuit that sought to block Referendum 71 from the ballot.

Supporters of expanded legal benefits for gay couples said they'd file a new lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court on Thursday - the same day a federal judge in Tacoma was scheduled to hear arguments over whether the R-71 signature petitions should be made public.

"Judge Spector issued a very strong affirmation of the deficiencies in the signatures and petitions accepted by the secretary of state," said Anne Levinson, a lawyer who has led the effort to keep R-71 off the ballot. "If those petitions had been correctly disqualified, the measure would not have had enough signatures to be certified."

Stephen Pidgeon, an attorney for Protect Marriage Washington, the group pushing R-71, criticized the judge's ruling on several counts, arguing that if she didn't have jurisdiction, she had no business making findings about the signatures.

"If they want to bring this to Thurston County now, well, OK, good luck," Pidgeon said. "This was the most scrutinized signature check ever. If those signatures are subject to even closer scrutiny, we believe many more signatures will be found to be valid."

Reed announced Wednesday morning that of nearly 138,000 signatures turned in by Protect Marriage Washington, 122,007 were valid - 1,430 more than necessary. Though the signatures would normally be public under state law, U.S. District Benjamin Settle has temporarily blocked their release because R-71 supporters are claiming harassment and threats by their political opponents; he scheduled arguments on that issue for Thursday.

Spector noted several problems with the signature petitions. However, she said it's unclear whether state law prevents the secretary of state from accepting signature petitions that don't meet legal requirements.

Reed's spokesman, David Ammons, said the judge affirmed the office's discretion in accepting signatures.

"She did say there were a number of questions that were raised that were good questions about how the signature collection was conducted, but she concluded the court did not have jurisdiction," Ammons said. "She's cleared the way for the public vote on this issue."

Protect Marriage Washington opposes the so-called "everything but marriage" law, which would grant registered domestic partners all legal benefits enjoyed by married heterosexuals.

The law was supposed to take effect on July 26, but the referendum campaign put it on hold. If the referendum does appear on the ballot, the law would take effect only if approved by voters Nov. 3.

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Among the problems the judge cited: Tens of thousands of signatures may have been invalid because declarations on some petitions - attesting that voters signed knowingly, and were not paid or wrongly induced to provide their signatures - were left blank or simply rubber-stamped moments before being turned in.

Since 2006, Reed's office accepted such petitions under legal guidance from the state attorney general, noting that the state law merely requires the declarations to be printed on the back of signature petitions - it doesn't require the declarations to be signed.

Spector questioned that analysis.

"This essentially renders the declaration requirement meaningless," she wrote.

In addition, many people were not registered voters when they signed the petitions: Signature gatherers had them fill out registration cards at the same time they signed in support of R-71. Reed's office argued that it was long-standing practice and good policy to accept such signatures because it increased participation in the democratic process.

"The court notes that the plain language of the Washington State Constitution and the Revised Code of Washington requires voters to be registered before signing," Spector wrote. "While it may be common practice for individuals to register simultaneously with signing referendum petitions, and it may even be good policy, that does not mean that the practice is in accordance with Washington law."

Washington courts haven't considered that issue, but other state supreme courts "have decided resoundingly against the secretary of state's position," the judge said.

And finally, Spector noted, some people were apparently lied to by signature gatherers, who told them, for example, that the expanded domestic partnership benefits would force public schools to teach that same-sex marriage and homosexuality are normal, even over the objections of parents.

"It is unclear whether a signature-gatherer can swear that an individual signer has signed the petition 'knowingly' when the signature-gatherer has allegedly misrepresented the contents of the petition," the judge said.

A declaration filed with the court by state elections director Nick Handy said that in reviewing R-71 signatures, his division "has not found any indication of systemic fraud or of intentional efforts to submit false names."

"You have to remember that whatever takes place as a matter of law here is going to cut both ways when it's done," Pidgeon said. "It's our referendum this time; next time it will be one from the other side. The sword that is being forged here is a double-edged sword."

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The domestic partnership law is Senate Bill 5688. AP correspondent Rachel La Corte contributed from Olympia.

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On the Net:

Legislature: http://www.leg.wa.gov

Washington Families Standing Together: http://www.wafst.org

Protect Marriage Washington: http://www.protectmarriagewa.com

Domestic partnership information: http://www.secstate.wa.gov/corps/domesticpartnerships

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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