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R-71: Fresh snapshot of fully checked signatures

by David Ammons | August 11th, 2009

State election officials have released the first of a new format of daily updates for the closely watched Referendum 71 signature checks.  The late Tuesday recap, reflecting only the batches that have been fully vetted by checkers and reviewed and revised by master checkers, shows 33,214 signatures checked, with 3,462 rejected, for a current error rate of 10.42 percent.

R71main

The error rate is lower than the daily and cumulative numbers that had been previously reported, because the earlier numbers included many signatures that still were being reviewed by master checkers. A prime example is that hundreds of signatures were not initially found on voter rolls by the checker, but a later check by the veteran master checkers did make a match.

The error rate is expected to rise as the count continues, largely because the number of duplicate signatures will rise as the number of checked signatures rises. In order to qualify for the November ballot, sponsors of R-71 would have to stay below an error rate of 12.4 percent by the time the last signature is checked.  State Elections Director Nick Handy said it remains “too close to call” whether R-71 will make the ballot, and cautioned against making assumptions based on the current error rate.

The elections crew of about 30 are working double shifts, with six observers watching on behalf of the two camps. The count is expected to take through the next week, and possibly beyond.

The new method of reporting the signature-checking replaces the old daily reports that included many signatures that were mid-process. A number of signatures ended up moving from the “rejected” pile over to the “accepted” stack after counties responded to requests for the voter’s electronic signature, registrations not initially found by the initial checker were indeed found by the master checker, and signature matches in some cases were OKd by the master checker.

The new numbers, reflecting the first 140 bound volumes of 15 petitions apiece, showed that 29,752 were accepted and 3,462 rejected – 3,117 because they were not found in the official statewide voter registration database, 12 were pending signature images from the voter’s home county, 203 because the petition signature didn’t match the one on file, and 130 were duplicates.

R-71 was filed by Protect Marriage Washington to try to force a statewide vote on Senate Bill 5688, the “everything but marriage” law that passed the Legislature this year, extending the state’s legal marriage rights to those on the state domestic partnership registry.  They need 120,577 valid Washington voter signatures to earn a ballot spot. Sponsors submitted over 137,000 signatures and because of the narrowness of their pad, the Elections Division is doing an every-signature check rather than a random sample.

23 Responses to “R-71: Fresh snapshot of fully checked signatures”

  1. Is everyone watching how these election officials are rigging the election? How many times have you looked at these same signatures and gotten different numbers every time? I copied the August 7, 2009 (rigged) election results page because I knew the secretary of state would take down the page and create new math and create new numbers. I have now copied the August 11, 2009 (rigged) election results page too.

    On August 6, 2009 after five days of counting the rejected signature rate was over 14% well over the 12.4% needed to pass. The next day all of a sudden master fixers I mean “checkers” changed the numbers and the rejected signature rate moved a massive 19%. Here we are again today looking at the SAME signatures and the numbers moving another massive 10%.

  2. STOP RIGGING THE ELECTION!

  3. How did you go from 35,000 accepted signatures last Friday to 33,000 today? This is getting fishier and fishier.

  4. This whole process is disgusting. Everyday the state feels the need to change the reporting process. Why? A percentage is a percentage, why do you need to change the way you’re reporting the numbers. Either way my partner and I will be married on Feb 14,2010 – I guess we’ll spend our money in a state that doesn’t recognize hate, discrimination and condone illegal behavior in obtaining signatures. Am I the only one that has seen the You Tube videos showing these people lying to the voters in order to get signatures?

  5. Once again, thank you so much for participating in the conversation here.

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    To maintain a respectful and fair space for dialogue with your community members, comments that do not stay within these guidelines will not be posted.

    If you have questions about the management of this blog, you can contact the blog moderator directly at csiderius@secstate.wa.gov

  6. Calen Winn says:

    As explained in the blog, the way that the number of valid signatures can go down is that duplicates are found in the next batch, so some of the original valid signatures are also invalidated.

  7. I’ve been watching this process from the beginning and at first was skeptical after the numbers changed, but when you read through all the nicely composed messages from David Ammons I feel as though things are being handled fairly. I’m still skeptical about the low error rate so far. If it holds it may end up being the lowest in recent memory. Seems especially weird considering how the last batch of signature gathering was rushed. Maybe that will come out in the wash.

    Some of you also aren’t aware that apparently, in this state, you can lie and deceive to get people to sign a petition. It’s buyer beware. Perhaps we need to be taught to stop assuming others have the best of intentions and do our due diligence before signing something official.

  8. J Scooter says:

    Mr. Ammons,

    First, let me express appreciation for your continued dialogue with commenters, especially because many questions are difficult. Second, would you respond to the 2 comments that I made yesterday, neither of which — with all due respect — has been answered by you (and I have a 3rd and 4th question below). Here are the excerpts from my 2 comments of yesterday:

    1 — “no one from the Secretary of State’s office has responded to my earlier suggestion that — at a minimum –the State should randomly double-check 20,000 accepted signatures and see what it finds. If no errors at all are demonstrated, then perhaps double-checking of all accepted signatures would be a waste of time. But if even 1% error is found in the accepted signatures, that itself demonstrates the need to double-check ALL acceptable signatures.”

    2 — “why the State does not ask the federal judge to dissolve the TRO so supporters of the law can get at least one bite of the apple in judging the validity of the submitted signatures.”

    There has been no answer at all to the 2nd comment– so would you please answer it? And as to the 1st comment, the only response that you’ve posted that appears related to my 1st comment is as follows:

    “J Scooter and David Johnson — essentially requiring a double check would double the time and taxpayer expense for the every-signature check. Usually, an initiative or referendum sponsor turns enough a large enough pad to permit random sampling and it never comes to every-signature checking. We have no intention of moving to a full double check, absent a change in policy imposed by the courts or adopted by the Legislature or voters by initiative.”

    As you can see, your responses don’t answer my question. Your responses address double-checking EVERY accepted signature, NOT a random checking, i.e., “We have no intention of moving to a full double check”. So, would you please answer the question of why you don’t do a random double-check of about 20,000 accepted signatures and see what you find? This is particularly important in light of the following comment that you also posted: “Bill W–once the signer is found on the voter database, the signature match is the heart of the checking process. checkers are trained to spot phony signatures submitted by someone other than the actual voter.”

    The fact is that although checkers are “trained”, they are also human beings who can make errors regarding what is a “phony” signature. Not even all handwriting EXPERTS can always correctly corroborate that a signature is, in fact, Mr. X’s or Ms. Y’s signature – so how can a trained “checker” be so certain when he/she accepts a signature, ESPECIALLY AFTER IT’S INITIALLY BEEN REJECTED BY ANOTHER ‘TRAINED’ CHECKER?? Would you be willing to share with the public the content of the training materials that you provided to the checkers that makes you so comfortable that they can spot “phony signatures” 100% of the time? Please remember that this referendum may qualify or not qualify by 1,000 – 2,000 signatures out of about 138,000.

    So, back to my questions – now 4 questions, not 2:
    1- Please answer my question re the State asking the judge to dissolve the TRO in light of how the signature checking process is being conducted (so, as in every other signature-gathering process, members of the public can see if their own signatures have been signed without their knowledge or authorization, or so members of the public can undertake their own ‘double-checking’ of questionable signatures, particularly those signatures that your office initially rejected and then later accepted upon its own “double-checking”)
    2- Please answer my question about random checking of 20,000 signatures
    3- Please answer my question about whether you will share the training materials which were used to train checkers to spot ‘phony signatures’
    4- Please let us know if you will provide the public, ASAP, with the names of signatures that were initially rejected, so that the public can do its own “double-checking” of those signatures?

    It sounds as if your lawyers have already made the decision not to “double-check” ALL accepted signatures — i.e., your statement regarding “absent a change in policy imposed by the courts or adopted by the Legislature or voters by initiative.” (frankly, it seems like that should be a decision by the Secretary of State who should exercise his discretion when the law allows but does not require/forbid certain actions; it doesn’t seem like it should be a decision by lawyers who opine on what is required/forbidden and who shouldn’t get into the question of whether it would be good policy for the Secretary of State to exercise his discretion to double-check some or all signatures). In any event, my questions above are not about double-checking ALL signatures; they are different questions that perhaps you and your lawyers should think about — and to which many of us in the public would like specific answers. Thank you.

  9. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Our Elections Division is very aware of all of your points.

    The Tuesday afternoon report showed lower numbers processed, because the new reporting system is including only those that have been basically locked-down as complete, after the initial check and any revisions by the master checkers, usually because the voter’s signature was found after some deeper drill-down in the database. The previous reports included many signatures that were still mid-process, as previously explained, but left the impression that the categories were locked down and unchanging on the day they were reported.

    By the end of the process in a week or so, we’ll see the full account of the numbers– accepted, rejected and reason for rejection. The process is being closely watched by observers appointed by both sides. If you have any specific questions about whether everything is being done decently and in order, you might contact your preferred campaign organization and ask what they are hearing directly from the observers who are actually on site.

    Our intent is to do a scrupulously fair and honest check of the signatures, as the Elections Division has done for many decades, ever since the I&R process was written into the Constitution by the Legislature and the voters of Washington. The R-71 counting is obviously subject to judicial review, and the check is being done with that knowledge.

  10. Anytime there’s a “hot-button issue” one side or another (or both) will be quick to jump at anything perceived as “fishy” with their microscope on full power with everything. Kudos to the folks at the Secretary of State’s Office for their hard work and trying to make everything as transparent to the public as possible (“open government” means “open to the people”). So much so that THAT’S even WHY people know there was an issue with the numbers. All of the honesty & hardwork you folks have maintained is much appreciated.

  11. AJ– There are no plans to randomly sample to accepted signatures, although I am forwarding your suggestion to the Elections Division folks. Frequently, the random sample method is used, but not on R-71, because sponsors did not submit a large enough pad. The underlying policy, with which you disagree, is that if a checker finds the person in the database and the signature clearly matches, it goes into the accepted pile. If the signature is disqualified, usually because the initial checker doesn’t spot the person in the database, a more experienced master checker can sometimes find the person — maybe Charles, rather than Chuck, or maybe the person has changed last names. Sometimes only the first or last name is clear, and the signature or address are pretty illegible. If it’s a common name like Smith or Eng, you may have to plow through thousands of names. There are 3.6 million registered voters in Washington.

    Re yr other question, the federal judge has ordered the TRO until Sept. 3 and will hear the two sides at that point. Briefs and reply briefs are being prepared as we speak. Regarding your underlying point, that having the petitions would somehow allow citizens to be part of the signature verification process, there is no procedure for that. As I have blogged repeatedly on this point, once the signatures were submitted by the sponsor to the Secretary of State, the petitions are imaged and then the checking by the state begins. There is no procedure for taking comments, questions, challenges from outside the counting room. A state regulation says anyone can submit a letter asking to withdraw their signature, but that the signature cannot be subtracted from the final numbers. The letter — and we’ve had a couple — would be added to the public record along with all of the working papers that could be reviewed were there to be judicial review. We have a longstanding policy of treating petitions as public record, although it’s a recent phenomenon that anyone has actually submitted a records request. It may be logical to assume that one could scrutinize the petitions for potential error, fraud, etc., and report that to the counters, or to somehow track how an individual voter’s signature was adjudicated. That’s simply not possible or accepted procedure at this point in our history.

    Will check with Elections folks on your other two questions. They are understandably consumed and overworked just doing their R-71 check. I don’t know if training materials are in writing or rather part of the oral orientation. I don’t believe we have ever released the rejected signatures, either during or after the check. Obviously we are under federal court order not to release the petitions, so it stands to reason that a work product that divulged names, addresses, signatures, etc., would violate that.

  12. I guess I don’t understand why those of you who are against having R-71 on the ballot are so afraid. Let the question come to a true vote by the people, and take the opportunity between now and the election to present your case in a rational manner. If your side is really correct then you will win, end of story. But until then, please stop manufacturing conspiracies where there are none.

  13. I was under the impression this blog is not going to approve the posting of hateful and condecending remarks.
    Blog Use Policy, as I read it, states: The Office of the Secretary of State’s blog use policy states that posts and/or comments must not contain ..offensive… language or personal attacks. ” Isn’t it an attacking when someone says that the signatures were collected under false pretenses? Quote: “illegal behavior in obtaining signatures”. Or calling voicing ones voice and demanding a right to vote on an issue that was passed without citizens’ concent or approval as hateful?

    Do we still live in a democratic country? Do people still have the ability to voice their opinion without being demonized, regardless what side of this issue they are on? If those that call such behavior hateful spit out fire and personal attacks, are they then any better than then ones they accuse of such behavior?

    If we still live in a democratic society, and by God I sure hope so, then you have to allow people to have an opinion different than your peacably, and make a stand for what they believe. And people must be allowed to vote on laws that are being passed, without having to collect signatures–all such issues must be presented for the general public to vote on!

  14. J Scooter says:

    Most (hopefully all) of us don’t doubt the honesty or integrity of the checkers or the Secretary of State. The issue is really one of possible human error.

    Thank you for the explanation about “observers appointed by each side” to review the signature-counting process; that’s another element that increases the confidence level of a correct result. However, as to these observers, can you please let us know:

    1- Do observers actually get to see — up front and close — the actual signature / address that is being checked? Or is this something from a distance where the observers can’t really see the details of the signature / address?
    2- Do observers also observe the ‘double-check’ process by the senior/master checker — and if so, same question as above: is this ‘double-check’ observed up front and close so that the signature /address itself can be seen, or is it from a distance?
    3- Can the observers take notes (e.g., write down the names / addresses of persons whose signatures were double-checked) or otherwise make copies of anything that they observe?
    4- In light of the fact that there is a TRO against public disclosure of the signatures, what restrictions — if any — are the observers under? In other words, if they hear / see that John Z Smithstone of ABC Street in Tacoma or Mary Y Blackjack of XYZ Street in Port Angeles have had their signatures initially rejected and then accepted after a ‘double-check’, can the observers ‘reveal’ this information to anyone, or are they bound by the TRO or some other restriction against revelation?

    Thank you once again.

  15. Susan Blakefield says:

    Ammons said:

    “The underlying policy, with which you disagree, is that if a checker finds the person in the database and the signature clearly matches, it goes into the accepted pile. If the signature is disqualified, usually because the initial checker doesn’t spot the person in the database, a more experienced master checker can sometimes find the person”

    That is the rub. When a junior checker accepts a signature, the Secretary of State simply that to be a “clear[] match” and no further inquiry is made. By contrast, when the same junior checker rejects a signature, that determination is not accepted as “clear” and is just an invitation to a master-checker to look further. Unsurprisingly, as a result of this one-way process, the error rate has dropped from over 13% to just over 10%. The process is working as designed and is favoring validation or as Ammons has put it “facilitating access” to the ballot.

    Absent any further explanation from Ammons, the disparity in treatment of these signatures is both (i) arbitrary and capricious (and thus a violation of either or both of the relevant administrative procedure acts and constitutional due process) and (ii) a violation of the equal protection clauses under the state and federal constitutions.

  16. Good question. Observers may station themselves whereever they like in the “boiler room” and can see whatever is on the screen. they can’t converse with the checker/master checker, but may submit any concerns they have, by line and volume number. each of those questions or concerns are dealt with by a supervisor and changes may then occur if they’ve raised a valid question and want a re-check of particular instances. Observers may not write down names and addresses of signers during this checking process. The TRO doesn’t directly make a difference on this point; observers have always been asked to keep the material confidential.

  17. The very low rejection rate may have a very logical explanation. I was talking to a friend who suggested the following:

    The 2008 presidential election energized potential voters like no other campaign has in recent memory. Many new voters signed up, and voters who had let their registrations lapse (e.g. because they moved) renewed. So the pool of people eligible to sign referenda or initiative petitions in Washington is much higher than the historical norm. That makes it less likely that a signer will get dinged during the signature check.

    Can’t say for sure that this is what we’re all seeing here. David Ammons…any thoughts on that?

    Regardless, I don’t want my civil rights to come up for a vote, and I do hope that this referendum fails to make the ballot.

  18. J Scooter says:

    David, thanks for your explanation of the observer process. While it builds more fairness into the system, actually it also perpetuates the unfairness due to the lack of public disclosure of the signatures: there is a disparity in that the pro-referendum observers represent the ‘side’ that submitted the signatures and has had the ability (before they were submitted) to see all of the signatures previously, but …….the anti-referendum observers represent the ‘side’ that is limited to raising ‘questions or concerns’ based on ZERO opportunity to have seen the signatures previously.

    The disparity may seem theoretical, but it could turn out that if a checker/master checker rejects a signature, the pro-referendum observers may have information about the signatures as the result of knowing which signatures were submitted — so the pro-referendum observers would seem better prepared to raise a question or concern when a signature is rejected. On the other hand, the anti-referendum observers are in the dark about any signatures, and they are left with expressing questions or concerns about approved signatures with one hand tied behind their backs.

    That really doesnt seem appropriate. In light of how the checking/double-checking process is taking place, its inherent disparities (ie, double-checking only initially-rejected signatures) are transformed into gross unfairness as the result of the TRO.

  19. David,

    Thank you again for providing this information and for being so patient in your replies.

  20. Paul– your theory makes sense, and we know that registration drives continued this year, too, both by the R-71 campaign and those in areas with hot primary and general elections this fall, such as Seattle-King County, where they’ll get a new county exec and there’s a heated battle for Seattle mayor.

    J Scooter — that’s kind of the way it is for initiatives and referenda — the sponsors own the signatures during the collecting season. then they can turn them over to the Secretary of State for verification and a possible spot on the ballot. At that point, the sigs become public record and typically are releasable, in our view. But other than through the observers, there’s really not much a citizen can do to affect the checking process that ensues. A signer can’t withdraw his/her signature and I’m unaware of any process to entertain challenges of particular signers. There is no outside canvassing board or other process to add or subtract signatures that I know of. After the fact, of course, it’s subject to court review and a potential re-check.

    Timothy–thanks.

  21. Jay Jonson says:

    The checking procedure is clearly biased in favor of assuming legitimacy even when the state’s policy apparently allows petition-gatherers to lie and mislead potential signers. This is very bad policy. It looks as though this initiative will make it to the ballot, causing people to spend enormous amounts of money on a referendum that has illegitimately been placed on the ballot. It amounts to a tax on the people of the state.

  22. I would like to know if they confirm with the person who signed the petition, assuming the signature does not ‘match’ as to whether or not they signed the petition in question. Or if they cannot recall either way, email them a picture perhaps and ask if they recognize the signature as theirs.

    The same issue was a problem in Florida during the Bush/Gore election – it was a side of the ballot issue not discussed much, since most of the voting fracaus in the media concerned actual ballot box votes, but thousands of mail-in votes were ‘thrown out’ because people’s signatures did not match the one on file – even sometimes when they found out their vote was discounted and protested that it was indeed them.

    In addition to handwriting having slight changes over time, some people have very variable handwriting.

    I am part of a multiple system, so if I sign a petition my signature would be very different from if Kurischino signed the petition – and exceedingly strange since I would want to sign my own name, but would have to sign the legal name on our voter registration, and only about two of us can replicate that handwriting with any degree of proficiency if trying. It is somewhat ironic in that if signature matching is meant to prevent people signing for others, and if someone else must sign for me to get the signature to match, it defeats the whole point.

    But if they use the phone number provided to call the person and confirm or deny if it does not match, then that should minimize any error.

  23. Camelon– good question. unfortunately, there is neither time nor manpower to check out each and every signature that does not match the one on file for them. This was litigated in Oregon, and their election division was told they did not have to contact each person with a non-matching signature to see what was going on. We do know that people’s signatures change somewhat as they get older. It would be nice if we had a database of eight or 10 signatures per person or some failsafe handwriting recognition software. for now, it’s just human beings doing the checking, and they try very hard to be accurate and fair. We obviously don’t want to disallow a signature if it’s really them, and on the other hand, we can’t allow forgery.

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