Conservative petitioners find county good signature source

Local voters back measures at high rate

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OLYMPIA -- With organizations spending more than ever to put initiatives before the voters, signature-gatherers are looking to Clark County for support on conservative issues, such as repealing gay marriage.

On June 6, Preserve Marriage Washington turned in 247,311 petition signatures to the Secretary of State's elections office. These signatures -- partly collected by paid signature-gatherers -- placed R-74 on the November ballot in an effort to repeal the recent law legalizing gay marriage.

Of these 247,311 signatures, The Columbian estimates about 19,000 of them, or approximately 7.7 percent, came from Clark County. The estimate is based on the number of Clark County residents found in a quarter of the signatures. The county has about 6.3 percent of the state's population.

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, attributed Clark County's opposition to gay marriage to the fact that many voters, especially in the northern part of the county, are strong believers in traditional marriage. Orcutt himself signed the petition to get R-74 on the ballot, and said he voted against the law legalizing gay marriage.

Conservative leanings in Clark County are growing, he said.

"I think over the last few years, the citizens in Clark County have shown they prefer conservative candidates over the liberal ones," he said.

They have been voting more conservatively on ballot measures, as well, he said. Orcutt cited 2010's I-1053 as an example. The measure required a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to raise taxes.

According to the Office of the Secretary of State, Clark County voters in 2010 roundly approved this initiative and another measure (I-1107) that repealed taxes on beverages and candy. Local voters also rejected I-1098, which would have established an income tax for the state's top earners.

Overall, Washington voters rejected taxes -- approving I-1053 and I-1107, and rejecting I-1098 -- but in all three cases, Clark County voters opposed taxes at a higher percentage than statewide voters.

"People care about their pocketbook," Orcutt said. "The taxpayers don't have any more to give."

Another tax measure will appear on the November ballot. I-1185 would renew the requirement that tax increases must pass in the Legislature with a two-thirds majority. The initiative's sponsor, conservative activist Tim Eyman, has filed dozens of initiatives -- perhaps more than anyone in the state's history -- and is well-versed in the challenges of landing a measure on the ballot.

However, that's getting harder and harder, he said.

According to Brian Zylstra, deputy communications director for the Secretary of State's office, referendum sponsors need to collect 120,577 signatures to qualify a referendum for the ballot. That's 4 percent of the number of voters who participated in the last gubernatorial election. Sponsors can file any time after a bill they wish to repeal is signed into law.

Those looking to place an initiative on the ballot need 241,153 signatures, about twice the amount required for referenda. Initiative sponsors can file starting Jan. 1, and signatures are due on July 6.

This gives signature-gatherers six months to collect signatures for initiatives. They would need to gather an average of 1,340 signatures per day -- and that's not counting the several thousand extra needed to make up for any invalid signatures.

Eyman said it has become difficult to qualify measures for the ballot without paid signature-gatherers. The large number of signatures and the short amount of time require organizers to spend a lot more money, he said.

"If it was really easy, we'd be voting on a whole lot more initiatives on the ballot," he said.

Secretary of State Sam Reed agreed that the signature requirement may be hindering the success of grass-roots operations.

"In some ways, that's getting out of the reach of a group of just volunteers who say, 'Hey let's do this!' and go out and start collecting signatures," he said. "That is a huge number of signatures, and that's why now every initiative or referendum uses paid signature gatherers. … This may not be particularly healthy, but it's the way it is. Organizations [are] buying their way onto the ballot by spending a large amount of money to get the signatures."

Despite the hurdles for grass-roots groups, Reed said the initiative process still serves its original purpose: It allows voters to decide on controversial or politically unappealing issues legislators won't address.

And nearly every measure on this year's ballot will be just that, he said.

The four citizen-sponsored measures expected on this November's ballot deal with:

• The creation of charter schools.

• The Legislature's ability to raise taxes.

• The legalization of same-sex marriage.

• The legalization of marijuana.

Reed said signature-gatherers likely target certain groups depending on the measure. For example, while soliciting signatures to place R-74 on the ballot for the chance to repeal gay marriage, collectors targeted conservative religious groups, he said.

For this reason, Reed said, he suspects Clark County -- especially northern Clark County -- was a go-to for R-74 signature-gatherers.

"They [the signature collectors] were probably busy down there, because that's historically been an area of religious conservatism."