How does the signature check for a referendum work, and what is the impact of a referendum challenge on the effective date of the recently enacted legislation (SB6239) authorizing civil marriage for same-sex couples?
The deadline for turning in Referendum 74 petitions to the State Elections Division is Wednesday, June 6. Ordinarily, the marriage bill would be taking effect Thursday, June 7, but if opponents bring in signatures, the law doesn’t go into effect on schedule. If a signature check shows the sponsors didn’t bring in enough valid signatures, the marriage law would go into effect. However, if the R-74 challenge is certified for a public vote in November, the law stays on hold until the voters have their say. If R-74 is approved by voters, it will take effect 30 days after Election Day, Dec. 6. If rejected, the law will not take effect, of course.
Katie Blinn, state co-director of elections, gives this helpful rundown on how it all works:
• If the sponsors believe that they do not have enough signatures, they will likely not submit the petitions at all because once the petitions are submitted to our office, they are public record and we will receive public records requests for them.
• For a referendum, the sponsors need to submit at least 120,577 valid signatures of Washington registered voters. Since many signatures will be invalid, because the signer is not registered to vote, the signer signed more than once, or the signature on the petition does not match the signature in the person’s voter registration record, we recommend that sponsors submit about 150,000 signatures. The most common reason a signature is rejected is because the signer is not registered to vote.
• On June 6, we will count the number of petition pages that the sponsors have submitted. For a referendum, this will be in the ballpark of 10,000 pages. We will likely finish the process of accepting the petitions and counting the petition pages in the late afternoon or early evening of Wednesday, June 6.
• On Thursday, June 7, we will send the petitions to be imaged. This is for safekeeping, in case something happens to the petitions during the signature check.
• When the petitions return from imaging a few days later, we will go through the petitions page by page to count the gross number of signatures submitted. This is actually more than just counting them because we eliminate signature lines that are clearly not real people, such as Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse, so those lines are not included in the gross signature count.
• If the gross signature count indicates that the sponsors have submitted less than 120,577 signatures, then our office could determine at that point that the measure does not qualify for the ballot and the suspension is lifted. But this is highly unlikely since the sponsors themselves will also be counting the number of signatures submitted.
• Assuming that the sponsors submit at least 120,577 signatures, we will then decide whether we can check a random sample of the signatures submitted, or must check all of the signatures submitted. This decision is fairly critical because, for a referendum, it is the difference between checking 3,600 – 4,500 signatures in a random sample versus checking perhaps 130,000 signatures in a full check. A random sample check could likely be finished in a few days. A full check would likely take a few weeks.
The Secretary of State’s Office will not accept the R-74 petitions if it appears that there are not enough signatures. If the sponsors appear to have filed the minimum number of signatures on June 6, the legislation is suspended until our office makes a final, official determination whether the measure qualifies for the ballot. If our office determines that the referendum does qualify for the 2012 General Election ballot, the legislation remains suspended until after the General Election.
• It is difficult at this point to give a date on when that official determination on whether the measure qualifies for the ballot will occur. It will depend on whether there are enough signatures to do a random sample check, or we must proceed with a full check. If the sponsors do not bring in a large quantity of signatures over the minimum, then we will proceed with a full check.
• If the voters “approve” the legislation at the General Election, then the legislation can go into effect 30 days after the day of the General Election, December 6, 2012.