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Originally published Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 8:05 PM

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Low-key battle over state's same-sex-marriage legislation

The campaign to get same-sex-marriage legislation on the November ballot is under way, with petitions available in hundreds of churches, businesses and private homes across the state.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information

Washington United for Marriage: www.washingtonunitedformarriage.org

Preserve Marriage Washington: www.preservemarriagewashington.com

Protect Marriage Washington: www.protectmarriagewa.com

Fundraising

The campaign seeking to protect the state's new same-sex-marriage law, Washington United for Marriage, has raised 22 times more than its main opponent, Preserve Marriage Washington, according to reports filed with the Public Disclosure Commission.

Washington United reports funds of $378,737, while Preserve Marriage has raised $17,145 — the bulk of it in in-kind contributions from the National Organization of Marriage.

Protect Marriage Washington, the campaign behind Initiative 1192, has raised $170.

Source: Public Disclosure Commission

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There was a time when gay-rights supporters fought fire with fire, when they staged operations with names like "Bigot Busters" — showing up in parking lots, fairs and festivals — places where their opponents were collecting signatures with the goal of mixing it up.

Now, as the campaign to put same-sex-marriage legislation on the November ballot gets under way, those wishing to repeal it are making petitions available in hundreds of churches, businesses and private homes across the state, while their opponents have turned not to parking lots and community events, but to the Internet, hoping to "log" as many supporters as the other side can collect signatures.

Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage, a broad coalition seeking to defend the same-sex-marriage legislation, said the campaign rejected the more direct, face-to-face strategy as negative, choosing instead to focus on urging people to show their support by completing and returning postcards available online.

"We take them at their word that they will raise enough money to get this on the ballot," Silk said of the opposing side. "We wanted to run a positive campaign."

On its website, Preserve Marriage Washington, the campaign trying to defeat the same-sex-marriage law, said it has collected 4,583 of the 150,000 signatures it needs by June 6; at least 120,577 of those must be valid for the measure to make it onto the November ballot.

The site links to a number of permanent locations — churches, businesses and private homes — where people can go to sign petitions.

Additionally, campaign volunteers are collecting signatures at political events across the state, said campaign manager Joseph Backholm. Petitions are likely to show up in church vestibules and foyers and be passed down the aisle during Sunday services.

In the three weeks or so Referendum 74 has been in circulation, Backholm said the campaign has received requests from 1,500 churches across the state, exhausted the first 50,000 petitions and filled orders for thousands more.

"We've got history on this issue ... it's not totally new," Backholm said. "People are a lot more engaged, and we have a lot more people involved than in 2009. It's reasonable to think we can get this done with a really organized, well-run effort."

The campaign, backed by the National Organization for Marriage, does not have paid signature gatherers — though Backholm said he's not opposed to the idea.

"We'll do what it takes — legally and ethically — to get on the ballot," he said.

Separately, gay-marriage opponents are gathering signatures for another ballot measure — Initiative 1192 — which would reaffirm the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman.

Stephen Pidgeon, a candidate for state attorney general who is heading the Protect Marriage Washington campaign, said the volunteers are prepared to "push hard for the remainder of the campaign."

They have until July 6 to gather 241,153 signatures.

Pidgeon said his campaign is advocating people sign both I-1192 and R-74. However, most signature gatherers for R-74 are not circulating petitions for I-1192 because campaign organizers believe it would be too confusing to ask those who oppose gay marriage to vote "yes" on an initiative and "no" on the referendum.

Postcards

Silk, of Washington United, said his campaign is hoping to collect 120,577 postcards from supporters and their families and friends — matching the number of valid signatures their opponents need to collect for R-74.

He's concerned that scattered efforts by gay-rights supporters not associated with Washington United, while well-intentioned, may be confusing. For example, in addition to a Decline to Sign Referendum 74 website, there's also an Approve Referendum 74 Facebook page — the title of which could confuse people now, during the signature-gathering phase. (If same-sex marriage opponents do collect enough signatures to get the measure on the ballot, voters in November will be asked to approve or reject the new law.)

The potential confusion is the very reason Silk said the campaign didn't want to participate in a decline-to-sign effort.

But Steven Puvogeo, who runs the Decline to Sign website, said he thinks it is shortsighted not to try to sway people who might be on the fence.

While the issue was still being debated in the Legislature earlier this year, Puvogeo, an Aberdeen resident who describes himself as a not-hard-left Democrat, said he bought several domain names — ending in .com and .org — that incorporated the phrase Referendum 74 and Referendum 73 and even some Referendum 75s, so he could direct those searching for information on the referendum.

He encourages visitors to his site to post a decline-to-sign image on their Facebook page so their friends may "like" it, and he directs to Washington United's main website those seeking to donate.

Washington United, he said, "abandoned the petition process when in reality (the numbers are) likely very close." He pointed out that Referendum 71, which sought to undo the state's domestic-partnership law three years ago, barely made the ballot.

As part of his own personal decline-to-sign campaign, Paul Thomasson obtained names and email addresses of those who signed R-71 — voters he believes would also be inclined to sign R-74.

He wrote an impassioned personal story and emailed it to hundreds of them, with no idea what to expect in return. He heard back from 72 of them and received a phone call, which he said resulted in a 30-minute conversation with a Mormon.

"I think I at least got him to think about it," Thomasson said.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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