Signature rules need an update

Backers of a referendum petition to overturn the civil union law passed by the 2007 Legislature are upset that they fell 116 signatures short in their effort to qualify for the 2008 ballot.

Their frustration with that is understandable, as is their frustration with a flaw in the state law that provides no remedy when petition signers say their signatures were incorrectly rejected.

But they are misguided in their attempts to pressure Jackson County Clerk Kathy Beckett and her colleagues into accepting affidavits from voters whose signatures were disqualified. In effect, they are asking for special treatment not accorded other initiative and referendum campaigns and not provided for under state law.

The deadline for county clerks to review rejected signatures expired Friday. The referendum effort therefore failed; state law requires referendum supporters to gather 55,179 valid signatures within 90 days of the end of the legislative session.

The petitioners' chief objection to the signature verification process is that there is no opportunity for voters whose signatures are rejected to assert that they did indeed sign the petition legally. They note that when a voter's signature is rejected in an election, the clerk contacts the voter and allows the voter to fill out a new registration card to update their signature.

That's because state law specifically calls for that remedy in an election but not in the initiative or referendum process.

It is unreasonable to expect county clerks to suddenly adopt a new procedure for one petition that was not available to supporters of previous failed petition campaigns. The fact that this petition fell only a few signatures short statewide shouldn't be justification for taking extra steps to help it qualify.

Referendum supporters say it ought to be a simple matter for Beckett and other clerks around the state to contact voters whose signatures are rejected. That might be true, but unfortunately the law simply does not allow it.

Frustrated petitioners can take their case to the courts, but because there is no law specifying a uniform procedure for voters to update their signatures, it's hard to imagine that effort would prevail.

Opponents of civil unions learned a hard lesson in this episode: They simply did not collect enough signatures to provide for a margin of error. Successful campaigns collect enough extra signatures to allow for a certain percentage to be disqualified and still meet the threshold.

But in close calls such as this, the state should have a remedy to ensure that citizens' opinions count. With clear guidelines from the Legislature, clerks could take the extra steps to ensure that signatures are not mistakenly discarded and that the initiative process is as fair as possible.

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