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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Referendum to repeal sex ed law gathers record number of signatures despite pandemic

OLYMPIA -- Referendum 90 signature campaign director Mindie Wirth, far right in white coat, leads applause as volunteers turn over cards to reveal the record number of signatures they gathered before turning petitions in to the state elections office Wednesday afternoon.  (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Despite stay-home orders and restrictions on gathering required by the COVID-19 pandemic, supporters of an effort to repeal a new law on comprehensive sexual education programs in state schools gathered a record-number of signatures to put it on the November ballot.

And they did it strictly with volunteers, their biggest expense was in postage to mail out petitions rather than paying signature gatherers.

On Wednesday, members of Parents for Safe Schools delivered more than 266,000 signatures to the Washington secretary of state’s office, more than twice the minimum required. Because that allows the state elections office to do a relatively quick spot check for a sampling of the petitions, Referendum 90 is all but certain to go to voters.

“This is a watershed moment,” Mindie Wirth, director of the signature drive, said as campaign volunteers revealed the number of signatures in boxes stacked near the entrance to the elections office. “So many churches and so many organizations got behind this.”

Most ballot measures qualify for the ballot by paying professional gatherers to collect at least some of the required signatures. The Referendum 90 campaign operated strictly with volunteers.

“There was no opportunity for paid signature gatherers,” Wirth said in an interview. “There were no large gatherings, no Mariner games, no home shows.”

What the campaign had, however, was the support of the Washington Catholic Conference, which allowed for petitions to be dropped off in parking lots if volunteers followed guidelines for distancing, wearing masks and gloves, and sanitizing items like pens.

It also had a button on its website that people could click to have a petition mailed to them, so they could be signed and dropped off at drive-thru sites that were also tracked on the website.

“We had no idea what the response would be,” said Brett Bader, a long-time campaign consultant.

They got hundreds of requests for petitions a day, and had more than 160 drive-thrus open several days a week.

It also had people who delivered thousands of signatures Tuesday in what some called a Pony Express-style operation. Volunteers left Spokane with boxes of signed petitions and drove to Ritzville, where they met volunteers from the Tri-Cities, then on to Moses Lake and Ellensburg, getting more signatures driven in from Yakima, then on to a meeting point in Bothell, which was also getting petitions from up and down the Interstate 5 corridor.

If the referendum is certified as expected, voters will be asked whether to approve or reject Senate Bill 5395, one of the most controversial measures the Legislature passed earlier this year.

The bill requires all Washington schools to provide age-appropriate comprehensive sexual health education at various points between kindergarten and high school. Supporters say it would teach students about affirmative consent and the consequences of sexual activity. Opponents say it would start too young and that parents should have more say in what their children are taught.

The law requires one course for students at some point between kindergarten and Grade 3, one course in Grade 4 or 5, two courses between Grades 6 and 8 and two courses between Grades 9 and 12. The curriculum must be approved by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and voted on by the local school district. The law also requires parents to be notified when the courses are to be taught and gives parents the right to view the curriculum and have their children opt out of the courses.

“It’s about teaching kids to recognize and avoid things … instead of being victimized,” Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, the sponsor of the bill, said during the floor debate.

“What’s affirmative consent when you’re a kindergartner?” Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, asked. “We want students to be safe, but this is misguided policy at its very core.”

The bill passed both chambers with only Democratic votes.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said his office received more complaints about the bill than any other legislation in the 2020 session, and superintendents from several area school districts signed a letter asking Gov. Jay Inslee to veto the bill. He signed it, and Wednesday said he still supports the law, which is on hold pending the election.

“I think it makes sense that we give our young people scientific, verifiable information,” Inslee said at a news conference, adding he would oppose the ballot measure.

Early in the emergency measures to control the pandemic, Inslee suspended a statutory requirement for indigent candidates in the 2020 elections to collect signatures if they can’t afford the filing fee because of the danger of spreading COVID-19 by approaching voters to sign a petition.

Supporters of Referendum 90 argued that ballot measures should get similar dispensation, but Secretary of State Kim Wyman said that wasn’t possible because the signature requirements for statewide ballot measures are set in the state Constitution.

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