While admitting that plaintiffs raise valid concerns in their bid to block the certification of a referendum that aims to repeal a gay-inclusive domestic partnership law in Washington State, King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector on Wednesday rejected the challenge on a technicality.

Secretary of State Sam Reed certified Referendum 71 on Wednesday. But the referendum barely met the state's minimum with about 1,200 signatures to spare.

Referendum 71 puts the “everything but marriage” law up for a November vote. If passed, the law would extend a 2007 domestic partnership law for a second time, granting gay and lesbian couples all the remaining state-provided rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

The gay rights group Washington Families Standing Together filed the lawsuit before election officials had certified the referendum, alleging the secretary of state had accepted thousands of “defective petitions” and signatures of people who were not registered voters at the time they signed the petitions.

Election officials say they are following the advice of Attorney General Rob McKenna, who in a 2006 opinion said a declaration printed on the back of petitions does not need to be signed.

“Based on what the Attorney General's opinion says,” Nick Handy, state elections director, explained in a blog post, “if the declaration is not printed on the back of the petitions, our office will reject the petition sheets. Under the Attorney General's opinion, the declaration does not have to be signed. If it is not signed, our office will not reject the petition sheets. Since 2006, we have consistently advised all initiatives and referendum sponsors that they do not have to submit signed declarations on the back. They do have to submit petition sheets with the declaration printed on the back.”

Plaintiffs disagree, arguing the 2005 law requires a signed declaration. The declaration states that the signature-gatherer personally circulated the petition without promise of compensation.

Spector's ruling appeared to side with plaintiffs but she denied the motion, saying that a challenge to a referendum can only occur after it has been certified by the secretary of state and that it must be brought in Thurston County Superior Court.

She noted that an unsigned declaration “essentially renders the declaration meaningless.”

While conceding that the common practice of simultaneously registering people as they sign a referendum might be good policy, she said the practice has been found to be illegal by other state supreme courts (but not Washington State).

Finally, Spector appeared concerned with the language used in the petitions, which she called “apparent falsehoods, hyperbole and unsubstantiated claims.” The petition claims that the law would force public schools to teach that gay marriage and being gay are normal “even over the objections of parents” and that Referendum 71 would “protect children.”

But Spector also gave supporters of the referendum hope when she said that state law does not require the secretary of state to not accept petitions that do not meet statutory requirements: “In summary, under Washington case law it is unclear whether there are any limits to the secretary of state's discretion as long he has chosen to accept petitions rather than reject them.”

Meanwhile, a Washington Poll report released Wednesday shows strong public support for recognizing gay unions in the state. The poll shows that support for gay domestic partnerships and marriage has increased from 58% in 2006 to 66% in 2008, while opposition declined 5% during the same period, with only 21% of respondents agreeing last year that gay and lesbian couples should be granted no legal recognition.