by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
As of Thursday, August 13, the Secretary of State's signature verifiers have checked 50,493 of the more than 137,000 signatures that Protect Marriage Washington turned in to the office July 25 in hopes of qualifying R-71 for the November 3 General Election.
The Secretary of State's final count is expected to be completed be the end of the month. If the current incremental increase in the cumulative error rate holds, then R-71 will either qualify or fail by a razor-thin margin. State elections officials state that the signature-check is too close to call at this point.
Throughout the week, signature verifiers reported that most signature rejections were due to the person not being found on the statewide voter registration base. Other rejections were made because the signature on the petition did not match the one on file. Most of the signatures that are temporarily set aside while awaiting an electronic signature from the person's home county will typically be moved over to the "accepted" file.
The number of duplicate signatures rose substantially and, according to elections officials, duplicates are expected to push up the error rate as more and more signatures are checked.
Washington Families Standing Together, the official campaign hoping to keep R-71 off the ballot, and Protect Marriage Washington, the backers of R-71, continued to send observation teams to Olympia this week. The signature-by-signature verification process was accelerated last week as elections officials added an additional night shift.
In order for R-71 to make the November ballot, the Secretary of State's office will have to report that 120,577 of the 137,689 signatures turned in by Protect Marriage Washington are valid. R-71 asks voters to approve or disapprove Senate Bill 5688, which grants registered same-sex domestic partners the same rights and responsibilities as married couples in Washington State. The bill would have taken effect July 26, but is now on hold while the R-71 signature check is pending.
A daily update is available on the R-71 homepage at www.vote.wa.gov.
"A TRUE THREAT"
The state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) rejected an August 6 request by Protect Marriage Washington for an emergency hearing for suspension of modification of reporting requirements August 11. Protect Marriage Washington also asked the PDC to seal the names of their campaigns donors - a request also denied by the commission. Instead, the PDC has added the group's request to a regularly scheduled meeting on August 27.
In a four-page letter sent August 11 to Stephen Pidgeon, the attorney who represents Protect Marriage Washington, the commission said the donor names are a public record and have been available since June on the PDC website at www.pdc.wa.gov.
"These reports and this disclosure to the public are required by statute," wrote Doug Ellis, assistant director of the PDC.
He said transparency is expected in election financing.
"It's a hurdle that they are going to have to jump to be able to say that the public doesn't have a right to know who is financing their campaigns," said Ellis.
Last week, Pidgeon asked the commission to hold an emergency hearing because the group had received threats. The attorney said the threats towards Protect Marriage Washington, posted on the website Queer Equality Revolution, were forwarded to the FBI.
Pidgeon wrote that violent threats had been levied against churches, property, and at supporters of the campaign working to repeal Washington State's same-sex domestic partnership law.
Queer Equality Revolution, run by John Bisceglia, contains posts which Pidgeon called "a true threat to the lives and property of those people who support the referendum process."
On August 3, Bisceglia posted, "I advocate using violence against the property of ALL of those who are working tirelessly to HURT my family; starting with churches and government property. Government is enabling a vote on whether or not I 'should be allowed' to see my husband while he is dying in the hospital - any NORMAL man would be driven to get a gun and kill those who tried such evil cruelty against his loved ones."
Bisceglia declined a formal interview request by SGN because of stress he says he is under due to post-traumatic stress disorder.
He posted a blog on August 11 saying that people were overreacting to what he posted earlier.
"I NEVER urged people to get guns and kill, although I DO believe in SELF-DEFENSE," he wrote.
On September 3 at 2:30 p.m., a federal judge in Tacoma will hear a case in which Protect Marriage Washington's attorneys plan to argue that releasing the names of R-71 signers will subject them to harassment and possible retribution.
United States District Judge Benjamin H. Settle granted the organization a temporary restraining order to bar the release of "signatures, addresses or other contact information" on R-71 petitions. Settle granted the order, which expires September 3, because, he said, "Plaintiffs have demonstrated a reasonable likelihood of irreparable harm if Defendants release the contact information of those individuals who signed the Referendum 71 petition."
Settle said a temporary restraining order is in the public interest, stating, "Plaintiffs' complaint raises constitutional issues potentially affecting over 100,000 voters."
WhoSigned.org, a political group, has said it will publish the names online of people who signed petitions.
Washington Families Standing Together says the petition-listing effort is not supported by the organization. The organization said it condemns any threats of violence.
Josh Friedes, campaign manager for Washington Families Standing Together, said in a August 11 statement, "The only way we [LGBT persons] are going to achieve full equality for our families is through a civil and open conversation about the lives of our families and the important protections that the domestic partnership law provides."
Friedes added he doesn't want to diminish the pain and anguish that a non-Gay person might feel if they are the subject of a nasty e-mail or web posting, but, "every day we get nasty, harassing e-mails in the office or posted online." He said we all have to be focused on creating a society which respects each other and allows for civil discussion of controversial issues.
Deputy Solicitor General Jim K. Pharris is the lead attorney for the state on the case, and said that as far as he knows, "I'll be the lead attorney throughout the [September 3] proceeding."
"One of the attorney general's basic duties is to defend laws attacked by others as unconstitutional or otherwise invalid," Pharris told SGN. "Here, we are defending the state's public disclosure law as applied to petition signatures. The law is very defensible, and we are doing our job in defending it."
It was widely reported that no one from the Attorney General's office was present at the July 29 hearing. Settle cited that absence as one of the reasons for granting the temporary restraining order.
"The preliminary hearing on July 29 was held less than three hours after we were served with the complaint and the paperwork on the case," Pharris said to SGN. "We had no chance to adequately prepare for the hearing."
Pharris said the purpose of the preliminary hearing is to decide whether to issue a temporary restraining order preserving the status quo while the case goes forward. He said these orders are "nearly always granted & we thought it was better to use our time to read the 500 pages of material we had received rather than appearing in court."
"There is no case law suggesting that the signers of referendum petitions have a constitutional right of non-disclosure," said Pharris. "On the other hand, the people of the state have a strong interest keeping the referendum process open to public review and scrutiny."
There may not be a case law about referendum petition rights of non-disclosure, as Pharris said, but there have been some federal court rulings in favor of political campaigns who did not wish to disclose the names, addresses, and/or employers of contributors due to threats lobbed towards them and a violation of the their freedom of association.
On July 14, 2004, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik ruled that the City of Seattle may not force a Freedom Socialist Party candidate for Seattle City Council to disclose the names of her contributors in Averill v City of Seattle, C03-2508L.
Judge Lasnik wrote, "The Supreme Court does not require a showing of actual violence, instead recognizing that mere threats, harassment, and reprisals have the ability to chill the dissemination of alternative and minority viewpoints. It is the likelihood that supporters will receive threats that must be determined by the Court: whether the perpetrators are likely to carry out their threat against party members does not alter the legal analysis."
True, Averill v City of Seattle dealt with campaign contributors and not referendum petitions, but what the case ruling does show in regards to the September 3 hearing is that a Federal Judge does have the power to rule in favor of sealing the petition names based on threats of violence made towards R-71 backers. In essence, angry blog postings and threatening e-mails sent to Protect Marriage Washington are not helping.
Still, Pharris maintains the Attorney General's stance is that the public has the right to know who signed the R-71 petitions.
"Petition information has been publicly released several times in the past few years, including earlier this year, without any serious harm resulting," Pharris told SGN.
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