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R-71: Don’t change the rules after the game’s over

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Sep. 3, 2009 at 11:32 pm |
September 4, 2009 7:35 am

I know it’s asking a lot, but let’s take a step back from the angst surrounding the referendum to undo the new “everything-but-marriage” benefits for gay partners. Let’s try to look at the lawsuit against R-71 in the cold light of neutral legality and even-handed procedure.

Washington Families Standing Together, defending the new domestic partnership law, is asking the courts to keep R-71 off the ballot for several reasons. The only reason likely to get any legal traction is the claim that Protect Marriage Washington – the anti-benefits people – allowed citizens who weren’t registered voters to sign the petitions.

When petition-gatherers ran into would-be signers who weren’t registered, they had them fill out a registration card on the spot; the card was then sent to the local county auditor.

State code says that only registered voters can sign. The question is, can a citizens be considered registered when they complete the card? Or must they first be registered registered by county elections officials?

David Ammons, spokesman for Secretary of State Sam Reed, says Reed’s office has taken “sort of a liberal reading of that requirement.”

“The secretary’s view is that we’re supportive of the initiative and referendum process, and we like anything that encourages people to sign up and register. If this is what prompts them, that’s a good thing.”

I asked Ammons if the state had ever required citizens to be formally recorded as registered voters before they signed petitions. He said nobody in the office could recall the enforcement of such a rule. What the R-71 people did is apparently what every petition campaign in memory has been doing.

So if a court did disqualify R-71 because signatures were gathered with what Ammons called “simultaneous registration,” the referendum’s sponsors would have been done in by a requirement that struck without warning – a requirement no known previous petition-gatherers had to satisfy.

That would look a lot like changing the rules after the game’s been played. And it would leave future initiative and referendum sponsors wondering what kind of after-the-fact demands might undo their own good faith efforts.

If we’re going to change the state’s long-established acceptance of simultaneous registration, we ought to do it with due process in the Legislature, not by surprise attack in the courts.

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