People who signed anti-gay Referendum 71 may not have been registered voters at the time, but state elections officials say they will count their signatures anyway. As Box Turtle Bulletin noted, the secretary of state's office defended the state's legally murky position today on its blog:
There is no deadline for registering to vote for purposes of qualifying an initiative or referendum; as a practical matter, the deadline is the date that the signature on the petition is checked. Checkers are instructed that a signature on a petition is valid if they find a person with the same name in the voter registration file, and the signature on the petition matches the signature in the voter registration file. The registration date has never been a limiting factor.
Secretary of state's office spokeswoman Christina Siderius, who wrote the blog post, says the problem arises because the state cannot determine the date people signed the petition—and thus cannot determine if they were registered to vote at the time. State law doesn't require petition signers to include the date they signed next to their name. "It becomes a little more difficult for us to sit around and speculate when someone registered and when they signed," she says. According the office's interpretation of the rules, she says, "Our policy basically states that if you are a registered voter when we check the signature, then we we count it."
In practice, this means a person could sign the petition but wait weeks or several months before registering to vote, which could violate state law:
When the person proposing any initiative measure has obtained signatures of legal voters equal to or exceeding eight percent of the votes cast for the office of governor at the last regular gubernatorial election prior to the submission of the signatures for verification, or when the person or organization demanding any referendum of an act or part of an act of the legislature has obtained a number of signatures of legal voters equal to or exceeding four percent of the votes cast for the office of governor at the last regular gubernatorial election prior to the submission of the signatures for verification, the petition containing the signatures may be submitted to the secretary of state for filing.
The law seems to present at least one deadline to register: "the submission of the signatures for verification." In the case of R-71, that submission date was July 25. So logically speaking, it would seem that the elections workers shouldn't consider any voter registration after July 25. But someone who signed the petition in June need only to have registered to vote this week, so their signature would still count.
Washington Families Standing Together, which coordinated a "decline to sign" campaign, is alarmed that the state may be violating the law. Spokesman Josh Friedes says, "We think the law is quite clear and we are concerned that the law is not being followed." He adds that the group is considering its options.
Why the fuss? R-71 is running on a razor thin margin between having enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, thereby putting domestic partnership rights for same-sex couples up to a public vote, or failing to make the ballot. As of today's report from the state elections division, 110,288 signatures have been counted out of a total 137,689 signatures submitted. With fewer than one-quarter of the signatures left to review, the petition has an error rate of 11.81 percent (and climbing). The petition needs an error rate of 12.34 or less percent to qualify.
Moreover, the campaign behind R-71 has used lies as a key tactic to gather petition signatures: claiming the measure would require teaching about gay sex in public schools, tricking gay-marriage supporters into signing it, and insisting the measure is about gay marriage licenses when it applies strictly to domestic partnerships.
State law also makes it a crime to sign a petition if you are not currently registered to vote. On the R-71 petition—and all petitions, according to another state law—it says that "Every person ... who signs this petition when he or she is not a legal voter ... may be punished by fine or imprisonment or both." So certainly anyone registered after July 25 could be violating the law. Siderius says sometimes there may be a backlog of voter registration forms; however, yet another state law makes it clear that voter registration forms need to be submitted to the state or counties on a weekly basis.
Siderius explains that she didn't make the law, or decide how the office interprets it, but, she says, "We are just following what has been the standard practice for a very, very long time." She adds, "We understand that this ... may be reviewed by the courts."