Critics say paid petitioners in Washington state are bullying and lying to would-be voters outside Wal-Mart stores in order to obtain signatures for a referendum against domestic partnership.

Antigay petition in Washington stateAccording to The Chronicle of Lewis County, Chehalis resident Michelle Watson and her 8-year-old daughter Allison accused Dan Ricca — a paid signature gatherer — of harassing them on Sunday. Watson wouldn’t sign, and said Ricca refused to relent, pressing her for information and following her in the parking lot.

On Monday, Ricca was seen stopping people outside the store, accompanied with a group of girls who fed three Chihuahua puppies on a table covered in signed and unsigned petitions.

In 2006, according to The Chronicle, Ricca was accused of filing fraudulent voter registration cards in California. The Chronicle also found that Ricca has been accused of multiple election and voter fraud schemes in Oregon and California in past years.

He was among a group of 10 men and two women named in a 2006 release from the California Secretary of State for filing fraudulent voter registration cards in Orange County.

A 5-month investigation linked Ricca and others to illegally filed petitions and the registering and re-registering of voters without their knowledge. A release stated that most of the frauds occurred in front of large retail establishments, specifically Walmart and Target.

A 2006 investigative report by the Orange County Register alleged additional wrongdoing, citing interviews from fellow petition gatherers and associates. There is no evidence Ricca was ever convicted of a crime.

In Bellingham, antigay petitioners are allegedly being paid $1 per signature to lie and claim that domestic partnerships are harming children and promoting homosexuality in schools.

For several weeks, The Stranger and the pro-equality group Know Thy Neighbor have criticized the Secretary of State for allowing false statements on the petitions.

Among the false statements:

  • domestic partnership is equivalent to marriage
  • banning domestic partnership restores one-man-one-woman marriage
  • domestic partnership forces schools to “teach homosexuality” in schools

David Ammons, the Washington Secretary of State’s spokesman told The Stranger, “The state supreme court has said you can lie in campaign utterances and campaign materials. We have no jurisdiction over extra words and sales pitches that sponsors choose to put in petitions.”

Know Thy Neighbor considers this a legalization of voter fraud:

Voter deception, fraud and bait and switch run rampant in signature collection for ballot initiatives. Usually petition sponsors pass that liability onto “paid signature gathering firms” such as now are being used to collect signatures for the Anti-Gay Referendum in Maine and had been in Massachusetts back in 2005 where any charges of mis-conduct can easily be brushed off as the sponsor’s inability to control “the sub-contracted labor’s sub-contracted labor” hired to collect signatures. But Washington is the first state that these lies clearly meant to deceive are allowed by law to be printed on the actual petition sheets.

The Seattle Times reports that antigay forces are not united in favor of the referendum — or the petitioners’ tactics:

What’s more, an issue around which Christian conservatives might be expected to find consensus ‚Äî repealing a measure that gave same-sex domestic partners the same state benefits as married couples ‚Äî instead has provoked infighting. …

[Pastor Joseph] Fuiten, senior pastor at Cedar Park Assembly of God Church in Bothell, long has been a staunch, articulate voice for conservative Christian values.

But his position on what role the church should play on gay rights is shifting, and he’s struggling to understand what God wants him to do next.

He remains against gay marriage, still sees same-sex relations as sinful, and also was against a measure passed by the Legislature this spring that expanded domestic-partnership benefits for same-sex couples.

But he has publicly opposed ‚Äî and won’t sign ‚Äî Referendum 71, the effort to repeal that measure, saying people are preoccupied with the economy and there’s not enough support.

More important, he said, Ref. 71 “drags us backward into a negative fight we’re not going to win.”

“I don’t want the church to be viewed as oppressive, [and] as opposed to people living their lives and eking out whatever happiness they can.”

Gary Randall, president of the Faith and Freedom Network which is leading the referendum effort, criticized Fuiten for his public dissent. (How’s that for supporting freedom?)

Ken Hutcherson, who is an Exodus International conference speaker and opponent of school rules against antigay bullying, criticized state religious conservatives’ lack of unity. However, the Times adds:

The outspoken Hutcherson, 57, has kept a lower profile this year. He, too [like Fuiten], is battling prostate cancer, and his condition is serious.

Though 40 pounds lighter, he’s as combative as ever, saying the cancer is “trying to kill me. I’m trying to kill it. One of us is going to die.”

He already has signed a Ref. 71 petition but has not been especially visible in promoting the referendum.

The Times says signatures for Referendum 71 are due to the Secretary of State’s office by Saturday.