‘Looming over gay-rights vote’: Disclosure debate

‘Looming over gay-rights vote’: Disclosure debate

r71-main2Washington’s hot ballot measure dealing with domestic partnerships, Referendum 71, is getting national media attention, along with Maine, which is voting on actual gay marriage.  But in Washington, the debate is sometimes eclipsed by a legal and public relations war over whether the R-71 petitions should be released as a public record, or kept confidential.

The New York Times’ William Yardley visited this disclosure battle in a Sunday newspaper piece ,calling the dispute a collision of “privacy, free speech and elections in the Internet age.”  By permission, the photo was from your own From Our Corner blog.

Secretary of State Sam Reed has followed a legal strategy of releasing initiative and referendum petitions under the mandate of the voter-approved Public Records Act, which has no exemption for the petition sheets.  Further, he views  petition-signing as a public act of citizen-legislating, where transparency is required, not a private act like voting.  The state, however, is under both federal and state court order to keep the petitions under wraps while litigation is under way, brought by initiative activist Tim Eyman and foes of same-sex marriage. More media spotlight came in a Seattle-datelined column by George Will of the Washington Post and Newsweek.  He weighed in on the side of non-disclosure, saying he hopes the Supreme Court will “block the spreading infection of using disclosure as a tool of liberal coercion.”  He did not mention that the initiative process is also used regularly by the “thuggish” liberals who have supported disclosure of public records and campaign finances.

Footnote: We’re sure you know this, but …  R-71 asks voters to indicate whether they want to APPROVE or REJECT the domestic partnership bill, Senate Bill 5688, that passed the Legislature last spring.

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16 thoughts on “‘Looming over gay-rights vote’: Disclosure debate

  1. Whatever happens at the polls today – whether R71 is approved or rejected – no one should forget that this $3 million battle only came about because of the staggering dishonesty and unfairness of your office’s petition review process.

    R71 was certified only because you insist on staffing up for ballot reviews with poorly trained temps. Because those temps then, unsurprisingly, make a significant number of errors. And because your office has a disgraceful policy to correct the errors with respect to rejected signatures, thus deliberately skewing the review process toward certification.

    Thanks to you and your indefensible procedures, R71 was almost certainly wrongfully certified and countless hours of and millions of dollars have been wasted.

    Whatever happens today, I will not forget.

  2. Mary– I can’t resist responding, despite your gratuitous insults to hard-working women and men who did the painstaking and thankless work of signature-checking under adverse circumstances. First, there was no “staggering dishonesty.” What’s that about? Do you think there was a conspiracy among 30 diverse checkers and this agency to make sure this got on the ballot? (The other side, of course, said we were godless heathen who were caving in to the “homosexual lobby.” Both conspiracies can’t be right simultaneously. In fact, neither characterization is accurate. Our people were honestly trying to do their job with integrity, without favoring either side.)

    Our signature-checking operation always uses temporary help, often college students or people loaned from other duties in OSOS. How else would you staff up for a relatively brief once-a-year check? These folks are trained, primarily in lookup techniques and signature-matching, and are supervised and audited. Their work on each volume was not complete until reviewed. It’s true that we have a policy of having a second set of eyes look at the rejected signatures, sometimes finding the voter after all. There is no need to recheck the accepted ones, because it was clear that they were in the voter registration database with address and signature that matched the petition. And we did a “recent registration” check to get newly registered people included. Thurston County Superior Court upheld these practices, and upheld the certification to the ballot.

    (BTW, This was one of only four full every-signature counts in the past 20 years; usually a random sample is tested and you get only a report of the final result when it’s complete. You’ve never in state history received daily updates and been able to track the error rate up and down. Was it a mistake to work in a transparent fashion over the course of an entire month? It certainly would have been easier to simply let the checkers do their job and announce the final tally. I certainly don’t advocate that, even though blogging this issue was a hellacious amount of work for the writers and the Elections folks.)

    Respectfully, I submit that the procedures were properly followed and that enough valid signatures were counted to qualify this measure for the ballot. I understand that you disagree with the outcome, and the process, but I wanted to try one more time to describe what it was like from our side of the street. Thank you for writing, Mary.

  3. David:

    Thank you for responding. Let me clarify:

    No one is accusing your reviewers or Sec. Reed of having an ideological bias or of conspiring either for or against gay rights. You simply won’t find that in my initial post.

    The problem is that you set up a system that is inherently error prone. And then you intentionally correct only one set of errors in order to give an advantage to certification. Contrary to what you say now, the accepted signatures had plenty of errors. That is why the one sample you did of accepted signatures showed a temp error rate of 13%. If the full body of accepted signatures had a temp mistake rate of even one-tenth of what appeared in the sample, then R71 was wrongly certified.

    That is what is dishonest. To set up an error prone system and then to use that in order to skew the result. Regardless of the subject matter of the ballot measure, that is dishonest.

    It may be that the use of temps and the resulting errors are not a material issue in most cases, since the petitioners typically have way more than is needed for certification, or they turn in so few that it is clear that it won’t get certified. But when in August you could plainly see that R71’s validity would turn on a maybe a thousand or so signatures out of 138,000 submitted, it was simply wrong of you to continue with temp-based, one-way correction system you had created. The result was very likely a $3 million, divisive electoral battle that never needed to be fought.

  4. I think Mary Donnelly is spot-on. It is almost certain that Ref. 71 did not have sufficient valid signatures to qualify. It made the ballot only because the policies of the Secretary of State’s office were heavily balanced in favor of approving the signatures instead of subjecting all the questionable signatures to rechecking. It is not obvious that all the accepted signatures were correctly approved. The rejected ones got three chances to be moved into the accepted pile; the accepted ones were never rechecked. And this doesn’t even approach the fact that there was widespread fraud in collecting the signatures. Having to fund this campaign at a time when marriage equality was on the ballot in Maine probably contributed to the defeat in Maine. Again, this is just another tax on homosexual citizens.

  5. Mary:

    I understand that you’re angry. It make sense given that it hurts…a lot…to have our rights up for popular vote. With any luck, we’re going to win, and I am in solidarity with you as regards the cause. I beg to differ, however, regarding the process of qualifying Referendum 71 to the ballot.

    My sister’s wife was one of the observers. The so-called “poorly trained temps” that you refer to were in fact very familiar with the rather simple and straightforward process, which the Secretary of State’s office has been completely transparent on throughout the process. They were, in the words of my sister-in-law, “professional and pleasant.” Heck, on this very blog, folks from the Secretary of State’s office made blog posts about how the system works, and how a trained “master checker” got any questionable signatures/registrations. The explanation was pretty thorough and written clearly for laypersons.

    I’m not one of those people who trusts government; I don’t think the government is my cuddly friend. I do think the Secretary of State’s office has done a bang-on job under the very hot spotlight of media scrutiny given that we’ve had some close elections and this ballot qualification issue. I furthermore note that they’re still fighting for release of the signatories to the R-71 petition (as well as Mr. Eyman’s petition) to further the transparency of the process. If anything, the Secretary of State’s office has chosen fairness and neutrality under the law (…again), and I fail to understand what warrants any of those allegations you list. Don’t let your frustration and fear relating to our rights being up for election motivate anger with the wrong people. The Secretary of State’s office fights for all of us in Washington, not our special interests or their special interests.

    Equal justice under the law helps us all sooner or later.

    (And with that, I should go back to paying attention in Civil Procedure…)

  6. Gwen C.:

    They got 2 hours of training. Period. This was disclosed in the state court litigation and the SoS did not dispute it. If they were just as fully trained as the regular SoS employees, then there wouldn’t be a master-check system in place at all. The SoS freely admits the need to double check the temps’ work, so respectfully you are not in any position to argue otherwise. The temps may be nice people, courteous and professional, but that doesn’t mean they are as accurate as the regular staff, i.e., the master-checkers.

    If only the SoS would have double checked *all* of the temps’ work and not only their work on the rejected signatures, then there would have been no problem.

    Finally, I am not angry about gay rights being up for a vote. I haven’t even said whether I supported or opposed R71. The point is that the entire state should not be forced to vote on referenda that have not satisfied the constitutionally required prerequisites. The SoS’s skewed process is unfair regardless of whether the issue is repealing gay rights, adding gay rights, taxes, the environment, whatever. It just happened to be that R71 was the vehicle to expose the serious flaws in the SoS’s procedures.

  7. If you look at Referendum Measure 71 you will see there is a continuation of very blatant age discrimination:

    Two individuals may enter into a state-registered domestic partnership being same sex at age 18.
    In opposite sex partnership, one individual must be at least age 62.

    Talk about unfair treatment!

  8. It is really easy and somewhat entertaining to point out all the flaws in someone else’s work. Mary, Jay, and others, precisely how would you improve the process? How would you recruit, train, schedule, and monitor the temporary personnel? How would you organize the office space to accommodate the distracting observers, media, and 30+ staff? What exactly would be your quality control steps? How would you evaluate and maintain the software applications? Who would provide your IT support? How would you coordinate the constant flow of information that certainly continues to command the attention of several divisions within OSOS that you probably never knew existed? What about physical security and logistics? How would your political calculus determine what information should be shared with the public? Who would provide your legal advice? If you have answers, then why withhold information from an obviously wanting agency? Maybe even send in a resume. If not, well…maybe the professionals really are doing a good job under the circumstances.

  9. Brian Walton: 62 year olds are covered to give them relief from a strict series of state and federal statutes that nullify any benefits they are receiving if they remarry, benefits conferred at the age of 62.

    One of the leading causes of poverty in those older than 62 happens to be remarriage, and a lot of these couples are unaware of that fact, thinking their benefits and pensions inherited from their deceased spouses will carry over when they remarry.

    Those under 62 are not similarly burdened.

    If you want to remove the age stipulation, push for a simple reform of federal and state statutes. Otherwise, drop the red herring.

  10. JQ:

    What are you talking about? Finding office space, IT backup, physical security and logistics, and the rest of the laundry list you posted have nothing to do with the egregious flaw that I pointed out and that many are aware of. Whatever the SoS does w/ respect to all of those issues he can keep on doing; it has nothing to do with the problem.

    The entire source of the problem (aside from the Secretary’s eagerness to accept petitions with fraudulent declarations) is Secretary Reed’s insistence on using temps and then only double checking those signatures rejected by the temps. It doesn’t implicate any of the issues you raise in your lengthy comment.

    How can the problem be fixed? Very easy. First, it takes a Secretary of State who recognizes the problem and does not obstinately dig in his heels on the grounds that “this is the way we have always done it so it must be right.” Second, in 19 cases out of 20, the use of temps won’t be an issue at all, since the petitioners either will have submitted many more signatures than is necessary or they will have submitted so few that qualification or failure will be virtually guaranteed regardless of what the temps do and what is double checked.

    It is only in a few cases when a referendum is near the margin – where the difference b/t qualifying or failing depends on a few hundred or a couple of thousand signatures – that the temp errors become significant. In those cases, the SoS either needs to have his regular staff do the review accurately the first time or have the regular staff master check *all* of the signatures that go through the temps. To only check the sigs rejected by the temps skews the results and, as almost certainly happened here, qualifies referenda that lack the constitutionally required number of valid signatures.

    Will this take more time? Yes. Will it possibly require some overtime for the regular staff? Yes. So what? It is no excuse for the SoS to punt in his duty to WA citizens. The few grand in overtime that the SoS saved last summer has been dwarfed by the millions of dollars and millions man-hours in wasted time on a campaign over a measure that almost certainly should not have been qualified. More importantly, all WA citizens suffer an injury when the constitutionally imposed limits on the referendum process are undermined.

  11. To JQ: Had the “approved” signatures received the same scrutiny as the “rejected” signatures, the referendum would never have qualified. My quarrel is not with the hiring of temps (though the lack of training they received is scandalous), but with the failure to check their work on a nonpartisan basis. The process gave a rejected signature three levels of scrutiny, with the bias of moving rejected signatures into the accepted category; but once a signature was accepted, it was never reexamined even though the sample run they did showed a high error rate in accepting signatures. This was patently unfair and meant that an unnecessary campaign had to be fought and paid for by citizens who had already suffered discrimination.

  12. Well, since the signatures from previous ballot measures are publicly available, the possibility of fraud is very real. It can’t be that hard to copy a signature well enough to be accepted by the checking process. It would seem that some means of detecting fraud should be implemented. How about having someone contact a person randomly chosen from each partition. If that person swears that they didn’t sign the petition, call another. If the second person swears they did not sign a petition, deny the entire petition, and all other signatures collected by the person who “collected” them. Then prosecute the person who submitted the petition.

  13. Brian Walton: I’d be happy to let anyone over 18 get a domestic partnership, if you will agree to let anyone over 18 get married. Any couple–gay or straight– could decide whether they preferred a marriage or a domestic partnership. That way, we’d have real equality.

  14. I was struck by the t.v. ad of the woman who was not allowed to be at the side of her partner as she was dying after being caught in the flood a few years ago. How anyone, particularly a person who claims religious beliefs, can support this kind of discrimination is beyond me. Of the many things this legislation will righten out…I am glad no one will have to die alone with a loved one forbidden to be with them….we should all be able to see the rightness of this.
    To our friends, neighbors and family members…congratulations for a step forward in gaining the full citizens rights that we should all enjoy as Americans.

  15. I honestly think that EVERYONE has a right to choose who they are AND what hey do –as long as they don’t hurt another person. I just wish we could stop hurting each other. May sound a little fluffy but that is life here on planet human.

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