by David Ammons | July 29th, 2009
State election crews have begun counting the signatures submitted by sponsors of Referendum 71, the effort to force a public vote in November on the state’s newly expanded domestic partnership law. Sponsors, called Protect Washington Families, meanwhile, are taking the state to court to try to block public release of the names of people who signed their petitions.
After state Archives completed microfilming of 9,359 petition sheets, about 20 crew members began counting the raw number of voter signatures submitted by sponsors on Saturday. Sponsors estimate the total at 138,000, not much above the bare minimum of 120,577 valid signatures needed to win a spot on the ballot. The historic error rate is 18 percent; 138,000 is about 14 percent. Actual signature check, comparing petition signatures against computerized voter registration cards, will begin in a few days.
Meanwhile, the sponsors are asking U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle to block public release of the petitions. They say disclosure would “chill free speech protected under the First Amendment, particularly when it is reasonably probable that those exercising their First Amendment rights will be subjected to threats and harassment.” “The hearing is at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday in Settle’s courtroom in Tacoma.
The Elections Division has a consistent policy of granting public-records requests for initiative and referendum petition sheets, notes Elections Director Nick Handy. There is no statute that permits the state to deny the request or to black out any of the fields, such as the voter’s signature. The division is currently responding to a request for Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1033 petitions. Brian Murphy of the citizen group Whosigned.org has an R-71 request pending. The group plans to post signers’ names and addresses on the Internet. Handy has cautioned against use of legitimate public records to harass or intimidate voters for exercising their constitutionally protect right of initiative and referendum.