A judge has cleared the way for a public vote on expanded domestic-partnership benefits in Washington state.

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OLYMPIA — Referendum 71 can proceed to the November ballot, after a Thurston County judge Tuesday dismissed the arguments of gay-rights supporters that petitions carrying tens of thousands of signatures were improperly signed.

R-71 asks voters to approve or reject a law that extends marriagelike benefits to gay and lesbian couples as well as some heterosexual seniors registered as domestic partners under state law.

The Secretary of State’s Office ruled last week that R-71 had obtained enough signatures to go before voters.

Judge Thomas McPhee issued his ruling Tuesday in response to a suit by Washington Families Standing Together, which had hoped to block the referendum from the ballot.

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It wasn’t immediately clear whether Washington Families will appeal the decision.

“We would only appeal if we could do so swiftly, and if we determine that’s the most helpful way to support these families who are under attack by these groups right now,” said Anne Levinson, a lawyer for Washington Families.

The Secretary of State’s Office faces a deadline of Thursday to tell the printer whether R-71 will be included in the voters pamphlet that is sent to 3 million Washington households, state Elections Director Nick Handy said. Counties also need a decision so they can design and print their ballots.

“Our view is it is time to move forward with this election,” Handy said. “It’s really time to let the voters make a decision about this issue.”

Washington Families had sued Secretary of State Sam Reed and Protect Marriage Washington, which opposes the expanded benefits. It contended that Reed’s office accepted two types of signatures it shouldn’t have.

The first involved those collected by signature gatherers who did not sign declarations on the R-71 petitions that profess they themselves circulated the petitions, and that the people who signed did so knowingly.

The secretary of state has said for years that though a declaration must be printed on the back of each petition form, it does not have to be signed.

McPhee, who took 50 minutes to detail his ruling Tuesday, essentially agreed. He said state law says that “the language of the declaration appear on the back of petition, but does not require that the declaration be completed or signed by a signature gatherer.”

The second type of signatures challenged by Washington Families involved those of people who the group says were not registered to vote at the time they signed the petition.

The secretary of state argued that as long as signers are listed in the voter-registration file by the time their signatures are checked, the actual date of registration doesn’t matter.

Again, McPhee agreed. Reed’s office knows the date when someone registers to vote, the judge said, but “what cannot be known is the date when the voter … signed the petition, because that information is omitted from the statutory requirement for referendum petitions.”

In other words, state law doesn’t require a date.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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