Judge rejects challenge to R-71

Judge rejects challenge to R-71
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - A judge on Tuesday refused to block a public vote on expanded domestic partnership benefits for gay couples in Washington state.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee rejected the arguments of Washington Families Standing Together, a gay-rights group that claimed Secretary of State Sam Reed improperly accepted thousands of petition signatures that supported putting Referendum 71 on the ballot.

The referendum would put the Legislature's latest expansion of domestic partnership rights for gay couples on the November ballot.

Washington Families Standing Together chairwoman Anne Levinson said her group hasn't decided whether to appeal.

"We would only appeal if we could do so swiftly and if we determined that's the most helpful way to support these families under attack by these groups right now," she said.

State elections officials have said that all legal challenges need to be completed by Thursday because they need to begin printing materials for the Nov. 3 general election.

"Time is short," said state elections director Nick Handy. "It's really time to let the voters make a decision about this issue."

Referendum 71, sponsored by a conservative political group called Protect Marriage Washington, would ask voters to approve or reject the "everything but marriage" domestic partnership law that state lawmakers passed earlier this year.

The new law would add more legal rights to the state's established domestic partnerships for gay couples, putting registered partners on par with married couples under state law. Some unmarried heterosexual couples also could register as domestic partners.

A "yes" vote on R-71 would put the newest law into place, and a "no" vote would reject it. The underlying laws laying out domestic partnerships - enacted in 2007 and broadened once already in 2008 - would not be affected.

Levinson's group argued that tens of thousands of signatures may have been invalid, pointing specifically to the way signature-gatherers filled out their petitions.

By law, the petitions must include a statement that professes all of the voter signatures were gathered properly. In some cases, those declarations were not signed, or simply rubber-stamped with a sponsor's signature moments before they were turned in to the state.

Reed has accepted petitions without signed declarations since 2006, under legal guidance from the state attorney general. McPhee sided with the state, noting that while state law makes clear the declaration must appear on the petition, it "does not require that the declaration be completed or signed by a signature gatherer."

He also rejected an argument that Reed improperly counted signatures from people who weren't registered voters when they signed the petitions.

McPhee said a time lag between sending in a voter registration card and the receipt of the petitions makes it impossible to know when the 43 people in question were actually registered.

"All this does is illustrate the uncertainty by which our present system tracks the date of petition signing compared to the date of registration," he said.

Stephen Pidgeon, an attorney for Protect Marriage Washington, said the judge's exhaustive analysis would withstand scrutiny by the state Supreme Court, if the case does end up there.

Pidgeon also said he would be surprised if the case is appealed, and that he was looking forward to the upcoming campaign.

"It's going to be a spirited and lively, but quality, debate on the merits," he said.

Washington Families Standing Together's previous attempt to block R-71 was turned away last week in King County for technical reasons.

Reed certified R-71 for the November ballot last week. Election officials revised the number of accepted signatures downward Tuesday, after an audit showed some signatures had been incorrectly accepted.

The latest official tally of accepted petition signatures for R-71 was 121,780 - about 1,200 more than the minimum required to qualify for the ballot.

A separate federal lawsuit brought by R-71's sponsors is seeking to keep those signed referendum petitions secret.

The petitions are considered public records under state law, but R-71's sponsors claim they could face harassment by political opponents if the names of petition-signers are released. U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle is expected to rule in that case this week.

The domestic partnership expansion was supposed to take effect on July 26, but the referendum campaign put it on hold. If the referendum does appear on the ballot, the law would take effect only if approved by voters Nov. 3.

As of this week, more than 5,900 domestic partnerships have been filed with the state since the law took effect in 2007.