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King County judge rejects challenge to R-71

Wed., Sept. 2, 2009, 9:46 a.m.

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 Superior Court, 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 immediately said they’d pursue their efforts in Thurston County.

“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.”

Reed announced Wednesday morning that of nearly 138,000 signatures turned in by the conservative Christian group Protect Marriage Washington, 122,007 were valid — 1,430 more than necessary.

The group opposes to the so-called “everything but marriage” law, which would grant registered domestic partners all legal benefits enjoyed by married heterosexuals.

A new state law granting the benefits was supposed to take effect on July 26. But the referendum campaign put it on hold, and the law can now take effect only if approved by state voters Nov. 3.

Spector noted several problems with the signatures turned in by Protect Marriage Washington.

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

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 common practice and even 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.”

Stephen Pidgeon, an attorney for Protect Marriage Washington, did not answer a call seeking comment Wednesday, and his voice mail box was full.

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