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Originally published Saturday, June 9, 2012 at 7:23 PM

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Disputed signatures on some Ref. 74 petitions

Nearly 1,000 of the more than 247,000 signatures submitted by the campaign seeking to undo same-sex marriage in Washington were found to be potentially fraudulent.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The secretary of state has discovered what officials believe are fraudulent Referendum 74 petition sheets — with nearly 1,000 signatures on them — among a record number of signatures submitted by the campaign seeking to undo gay marriage in Washington state.

The 48 disputed petitions were all linked by a single paid signature gatherer working on behalf of the Preserve Marriage Washington campaign.

Preserve Marriage and its national partner, the National Organization for Marriage, turned in 247,331 signatures on more than 17,000 petition sheets to the Elections Division this past Wednesday, hoping to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

It was the highest number of signatures for a referendum in the state and represents twice the minimum of 120,577 names needed.

The woman behind the suspected fraud was working for a signature-gathering company hired by the campaign and apparently used the names of real registered voters from state voting records, but then forged their signatures.

Elections Division staff will set aside all 48 of those disputed petition sheets for now.

On Sunday, they will begin a random check of 3 percent of the remaining signatures to verify their validity.

The random checks were expected to be completed by the middle of this week.

Failing such a check would not disqualify the referendum from appearing on the ballot. Instead, the state would do a complete hand count of all the signatures.

Eventually, Elections Division staffers will also review all 996 signatures in dispute and turn those findings over to the State Patrol for an investigation.

Forgery of signatures on ballot petitions constitutes a class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

Joseph Backholm, campaign manager for Preserve Marriage, said it would be regrettable if the signatures turned out to be fraudulent, but he said in the end he is not concerned the measure will fail to qualify.

"We don't want this in any way to take away the tremendous efforts of thousands of people who complied with the law in both letter and spirit," Backholm said.

A coalition of religious and conservative individuals and groups, Preserve Marriage, wants to repeal the same-sex marriage law the Legislature passed and Gov. Chris Gregoire signed earlier this year. It wants voters to reject the law by voting no on Ref. 74 in November, while gay-marriage proponents will ask voters to approve it.

The law was to have taken effect this past Thursday, but was put on hold when the signatures were turned in the day before. Presuming at least 120,577 signatures can be validated, the measure will remain on hold until after the November election.

Organizers with Washington United for Marriage, which is seeking to preserve the law, said Saturday the suspected fraud is not surprising given what they say have been NOM's questionable tactics in other states.

The Public Disclosure Commission and "the secretary of state will have to be vigilant on behalf of Washington voters to ensure the election is transparent and above reproach," said campaign adviser Anne Levinson.

The highly contentious campaign is being watched closely, and the signature-verification process is being monitored by observers on both sides.

"At this point, we are proceeding with the remainder of the check and will address (the disputed petitions) at the end of that process," said Katie Blinn, state co-director of elections.

Blinn said division staff on Friday began reviewing the petition signatures for abnormalities — people who listed their name as Mickey Mouse, or used an out-of-state address or simply wrote God Bless America.

A petition signature line includes the name, address and signature of a registered voter. The signature must match the one on file with the state.

Backholm said the campaign contracted for about 25,000 signatures from a firm that specializes in signature gathering, to ensure there would be enough signatures in the end.

Signature gatherers can earn anywhere from 50 cents to several dollars per signature.

Blinn said the questionable signatures caught the attention of division staff because of a similar pattern in the handwriting and other red flags.

The staff then isolated all the petitions the one gatherer had completed.

Backholm said petitions were pouring in from across the state in the final days and even hours before the June 6 deadline as campaign organizers hustled to check the names against official voting records. That morning, Backholm submitted more than 230,000 signatures to the state, even as volunteers continued to count back at headquarters.

He said the disputed signatures were most likely part of that last-minute batch.

He said the campaign isn't worried about the integrity of the referendum and that if election officials want to check every signature, let them "knock yourselves out."

"We have zero concerns," he said. "It's unfortunate what happened; it's against the law, and we want to help to stop it from happening again.

"But there's no scenario where we don't have 120,577 valid signatures."

This is not the first time fraud has been detected in the signature-gathering phase for a ballot measure.

Since 2008, there have been at least three instances — one a Tim Eyman initiative and a second by the Service Employees International Union. In both cases, the campaigns themselves detected the fraudulent signatures before the petitions were turned over to the state.

The third instance, in 2010, involved an SEIU income-tax initiative, I-1098, for which election officials discovered 349 forged signatures during a routine check of petitions.

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

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