Some R-74 signatures might be fraudulent
The secretary of state has discovered what officials believe are fraudulent Referendum 74 petition sheets – with nearly 1,000 signatures on them – among a record number of signatures submitted by the campaign seeking to undo gay marriage in Washington state.
The 48 disputed petitions were all linked to a single paid signature gatherer working on behalf of the Preserve Marriage Washington campaign.
Preserve Marriage and its national partner, the National Organization for Marriage, turned in 247,331 signatures on more than 17,000 petition sheets to the Elections Division Wednesday, hoping to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
It was the highest number of signatures for a referendum in the state and represents twice the minimum of 120,577 names needed.
The woman behind the suspected fraud was working for a signature-gathering company hired by the campaign and apparently used the names of real registered voters from state voting records, but then forged their signatures.
Elections Division staff will set aside all 48 of those disputed petition sheets for now. Today, they will begin a random check of 3 percent of the remaining signatures to verify their validity.
The random checks were expected to be completed by the middle of this week.
Failing such a check would not disqualify the referendum from appearing on the ballot. Instead, the state would do a complete hand count of all the signatures.
Eventually, Elections Division staffers will also review all 996 signatures in dispute and turn those findings over to the State Patrol for an investigation.
Forgery of signatures on ballot petitions constitutes a class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.
Joseph Backholm, campaign manager for Preserve Marriage, said it would be regrettable if the signatures turned out to be fraudulent, but he said in the end he is not concerned the measure will fail to qualify.
A coalition of religious and conservative individuals and groups, Preserve Marriage, wants to repeal the same-sex marriage law the Legislature passed and Gov. Chris Gregoire signed earlier this year. It wants voters to reject the law by voting no on Ref. 74 in November, while gay-marriage proponents will ask voters to approve it.
The law was to have taken effect this past Thursday, but was put on hold when the signatures were turned in the day before. Presuming at least 120,577 signatures can be validated, the measure will remain on hold until after the November election.
Organizers with Washington United for Marriage, which is seeking to preserve the law, said Saturday the suspected fraud is not surprising given what they say have been NOM’s questionable tactics in other states.
The Public Disclosure Commission and “the secretary of state will have to be vigilant on behalf of Washington voters to ensure the election is transparent and above reproach,” said campaign adviser Anne Levinson.
Backholm said the campaign contracted for about 25,000 signatures from a firm that specializes in signature gathering, to ensure there would be enough signatures in the end. Signature gatherers can earn anywhere from 50 cents to several dollars per signature.
This is not the first time fraud has been detected in the signature-gathering phase for a ballot measure. Since 2008, there have been at least three instances.