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5 Questions about R-71: Suits and shifts

by Christina Siderius | August 28th, 2009

Friday greetings,  fervent check followers! We’re kick-starting your weekend discussions today in 5 Questions, where our team talks you through your R-71 check questions.  It’s all shifts and suits (though not the pinstripe kind) …

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Q) Why does the recent lawsuit say that the Secretary of State accepted signatures on petitions that were not certified by the petition circulator?
One of the key points made in the lawsuit filed Thursday by Washington Families Standing Together against the Secretary of State is that a number of signatures were collected by signature gatherers who did not sign the backs of the petitions. The plaintiffs are pointing to a state law passed in 2005 requiring that a declaration be printed on the back of the petitions.

According to State Elections Director Nick Handy, the Elections Division since June 2006 has followed the advice of a formal Attorney General’s Opinion (AGO) regarding the 2005 law. Here is that May 2006 AGO , which can be found on the Attorney General’s Web site: http://www.atg.wa.gov/  .

“Based on what the Attorney General’s Opinion says, if the declaration is not printed on the back of the petitions, our office will reject the petition sheets,” Handy said. “Under the Attorney General’s opinion, the declaration does not have to be signed.  If it is not signed, our office will not reject the petition sheets. Since 2006, we have consistently advised all initiatives and referendum sponsors that they do not have to submit signed declarations on the back.  They do have to submit petition sheets with the declaration printed on the back.”

Handy pointed out that the Legislature has not changed the law since the Attorney General opinion. 

“Since 2006, this has been the published position of our office. It is posted on our Web site and it has been disseminated to every initiative and referendum sponsor.  While our position is not secret, this is the first time the issue has been litigated.  As state officers, we are bound to follow the Attorney General’s advice,” Handy said.

Hey, what’s going on with all these lawsuits?
We have two lawsuits active right now that will be heard next week.

The first relates to whether copies of petition sheets should be made public.  That case is in federal district court in Tacoma and will be heard Thursday, September 3.  Federal District Court Judge Ben Settle will hear that case.

The second relates to whether an injunction should be issued preventing the Secretary of State from certifying Referendum 71 to the 2009 General Election ballot.  That case will be heard before King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector on Monday afternoon at 2:30 in the King County Superior Court. 

We’ll blog on these rulings as they come down.  Stay tuned!

(Team Note: We won’t be commenting publicly about positions being taken in the lawsuit. We appreciate your patience and understanding on that.  The case is scheduled for hearing next week, so we will all know soon about everyone’s arguments and the court’s ruling.  Thanks all.)

Q.) How many signatures initially “rejected” in the first round of checks have been shifted to the “accepted” pile as the result of subsequent checks?
The so-called “recent registration check”, also known as the “third check” has resulted so far in 1,098 registrations being moved from “not found” to “match.” 

The third check is using the live database to determine if any registrations “not found” on the June 19 copy of the database have made their way into the database since that time.  Since the Referendum 71 sponsors were actively registering voters throughout July, we are not surprised to find significant numbers of new registrations for this petition.

Our system is not designed to capture shifts made by checkers between the first check and the second check (“the master check”). When a signature is “rejected” on the first round, it is essentially “held” until the second checker has made a decision on it. Because of that, we only track the second-check outcome, which is the number we release online each day.

Q.) How many voters are listed in the voter database as of July 25, 2009 (the petition turn-in day), and how many people who signed the petition were listed as registered after July 25?
First, the database is very fluid.  Voters are added and subtracted every day.  That is because new people register every day.  Some people die.  Some people move out of state.   The database could have 100 today and 100 tomorrow but that might mean that 5 people died, 5 people moved, 10 new people registered, and 10 more moved from one county to another so the numbers never changed but lots of change occurred.  It is very hard to draw conclusions about how many new registrants came into the system.

We will be reporting to the court exactly how many names are approved on the petition with registration dates after July 25.  Based on current projections, we expect about 30 names will be affected by this category.  Most of these are people who signed the petition shortly before the July 25 deadline and submitted voter registrations forms that were processed later.  The bottom line is that the issue only appears to affect about 30 voters out of the 138,000 who signed the petition.

Q.) Why is it that when “rejected” signatures are looked at again and again there is sometimes a shift to “accepted” status? Isn’t there something wrong if you look at the same rejected signatures over and over and get different results?
The biggest reason that a signature is initially rejected is because it is designated “not found.” Now, maybe that’s what’s confusing. We could more accurately describe this designation as “not found at this moment with this specific information – but it could be found later if we found more information.” (But that would be really long.)

The first checkers run the name as it appears on the petition, with the address listed on the petition. BUT, sometimes the voter signed her maiden name, a nickname, an initial, or included a new address that just doesn’t match our records.  The master checker is able to take more time reviewing all these little pieces and work through the various clues of information to find that voter. Many voters are the “needle in the haystack” sort (say, a “John Smith” who moved and didn’t change his registration card … yikes!) and the second check is intended to spend more time locating that voter (like looking through 300 “John Smith” signatures for the correct voter).

Don’t laugh.  We do have over 30,000 Johnsons and 30,000 Smiths on the database. If we don’t have a good first name and a bad address, they are long shots.  That is really too bad because even if they have moved they are still registered voters entitled to sign the petition.  The signer just has not given us enough current information to help us find them.  But, that is why we make the second effort with the master check to find these very difficult signatures.

This is generally why an initially rejected signature goes to the accepted pile: the second checker was able to locate that voter in the database. The “second set of eyes” step of this process has long proven to be an effective way for us to verify signatures.

Have a question about the R-71 checks? If you can’t find it in our comprehensive R-71 FAQs, then leave us a comment and our team will do our best to answer or clarify in our M-F “5 Questions” posts. You may also want to watch our video of the check to give you a visual on the process.

6 Responses to “5 Questions about R-71: Suits and shifts”

  1. Election officials continue to say “this is the way we always done it” yet you didn’t use the new registration databases until the 16th day of counting (8/21/09) when the rejection rate was approaching 12.43% and you didn’t use “master checkers” until the 6th of counting (8/07/09) after the rejection rate passed 12.43%.

    Let’s go back and review.

    8/06/09 – Rejection rate 13.54%
    The next day “master checkers” came in for the first time to look at only the already rejected signatures.
    8/07/09 – Rejection rate 11.63%
    As a result of “master checkers” look at the already rejected signatures the rejection rate dropped from 13.54% to 11.63%. Then on Monday and Tuesday of the following week “junior checkers” and “master checkers” looked at the already rejected signature AGAIN. That’s FOUR looks at the rejected signatures with FOUR different numbers.
    8/11/09 – Rejection rate 10.42%
    After looking at the already rejected signatures for a third and fourth time the rejection rate dropped to 10.42%, the lowest level the rejection rate ever been. It is standard for the rejection rate to climb as the counting continues, obviously on 8/06/09 R-71 had no chance of making the ballot and was given three more shots by election officials to lower the rejection rate by only looking at the already rejected signatures three more times.
    8/12/09 – Rejection rate 10.65%
    8/13/09 – Rejection rate 10.68%
    8/14/09 – Rejection rate 10.99%
    8/17/09 – Rejection rate 11.03%
    8/18/09 – Rejection rate 11.32%
    8/19/09 – Rejection rate 11.67%
    8/20/09 – Rejection rate 11.97%
    From 8/12/09 to 8/20/09 the rejection rate climbed EVERY day. It became clear with a rejection rate heading over the needed amount and with 35.9% of signatures still to be looked at something had to be done. Magically the next day election officials “found” new registration databases. Election officials decide to look at all the already rejected signatures with the new databases over an extended period not the one through way they did on 8/07/009, 8/10/09, and 8/11/09. As a result over the next few days the percent of “registration not found” goes down from 10% on 8/20/09 to 9.38% on 8/28/09.
    8/21/09 – Rejection rate 11.68%

    Has anyone else noticed election officials decided to change procedures on Fridays (8/07/09 and 8/21/09) when people (like journalists) would leave work for the week and when it became clear this referendum wouldn’t make the ballot?

  2. Matthew N says:

    Isn’t the law completely toothless and pointless if it’s required to put a declaration on the back with a signature line, but not require the signature collector to sign it? Surely the legislature’s *intent* is that this should be signed.

    If petitions are always accepted without this signature, then clearly no signature collector will ever sign the declaration and it is completely pointless. Surely a judge wouldn’t think that the legislature intented such a farce?

  3. J Scooter says:

    You have referred to the 2006 Attorney General Opinion that petitions do not have to contain “the signature” of circulators attesting that they have properly circulated the petitions and had only registered voters as signers. For those who want to take time to read the Attorney General Opinion, the following should be kept in mind:
    1) The Opinion deals with the question of whether a circulator must “fill in” his/her name AND “sign” the petition affirming the truth of certain statements, such that his/her signature will provide a basis for criminal prosecution if the statements affirmed to be true are really not true. The Opinion said that the circulator does not have to “sign” his/her name and that he/she cannot be prosecuted. If you read the Opinion, it distinguishes between “filling in” the name of the circulator and the circulator “signing” under penalty of the law. The Opinion did NOT say that petitions can be accepted if NO name of the circulator is “filled in”, but instead it is entirely blank.
    2) Although the Opinion interpreted the WARNING required by state law to be only a WARNING, and not a requirement for a circulator to “sign” his/her name and be subject to criminal penalties, there is not a single court decision in any state that interprets similar WARNING language in other state laws in the same way that the Attorney General interpreted the WARNING language that exists in WA state law.
    3) In every other state that allows referenda/ initiatives, either the voter who signs must put the date of his/her signatures and/or the circulator must be identified — there is not a single state that allows people to sign as registered voters without giving the date of their signing AND ALSO allows the identity of the circulator to be omitted from the undated petition.
    4) For those of you concerned about fraud — which should be everyone — think about point #3 above: since WA state law allows ONLY registered voters to sign petitions, and since well over 1,000 people registered to vote during the petition circulation period, and since there is nothing on the petitions that provide a signature date to compare with their voter registration date, then the only ‘check’ on when the signatures of voters actually took place would be if the circulators who obtained those signatures could be identified. If it’s impossible to identify the circulator who obtained undated signatures, it makes it essentially impossible to go to only few sources (eg, circulators) to ask when they gathered the signatures — and one would have to ask each individual of the 1,000+ voters. That is simply an invitation to fraud.

    Unfortunately, despite the honesty of the people in the SoS office, the process is completely rank with unfairness and illegality that invites fraud in gathering signatures. In the case of R71, the names of the voter signers are being withheld from the public (per the federal court TRO), the SoS is accepted voter signatures as long as the person shows up as registered whenever the SoS checker makes a check of the voter’s name (which could be weeks or months after the voter actually signed the petition), and it is impossible to know the names of persons who circulated the petitions. CHECK THIS OUT: There is not a single state in the US that allows a referendum process like this one!!!

  4. 2007 HB2019 Requires signature-gatherers to sign initiative and referendum petitions.

    In 2007 the legislature attempted to change the election laws and add the requirement that petition sheets be signed by the circulator. The legislature acknowledged that existing law DID NOT REQUIRE the petitions to be signed.

    Both HB2019 and It’s companion bill in the Senate failed to pass the legislature. The OSOS, or any other State Officer, can not enforce election laws that failed to pass the legislature.

    HERE IS A LINK

    http://wsl.leg.wa.gov/pub/BillInfo/2007-08/Htm/Bill%20Reports/House%20Historical/2019%20BRH%20SGTA%2007.htm

  5. Eddie, HB2019 was a “substitute” bill that would have “clarified” the existing 2005 law. Read your own link.

  6. What happened to the 200 votes that were initially approved and reverified? I heard on another comment thread that 14% of those initially approved were, on second look, found to be invalid and no longer approved. If true, does not this require a second look on the approved signatures?

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