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AGO 1956 No. 268 - May 16, 1956
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Don Eastvold | 1953-1956 | Attorney General of Washington

INITIATIVES AND REFERENDUMS ‑- WITHDRAWAL OF SIGNATURE FROM PETITIONS.

 (1) The secretary of state has authority to accept withdrawal of signatures from a petition to submit a proposed law to the electors;

 (2) The secretary of state may adopt a regulation governing the time within which such withdrawals may be made and the formality with which they must be executed.

                                                                  - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                   May 16, 1956

Honorable Earl Coe
Secretary of State
Legislative Building
Olympia, Washington                                                                                                              Cite as:  AGO 55-57 No. 268

 Dear Sir:

             In your letter of April 23, 1956, you direct our attention to the case of State ex rel. Harris v. Hinkle, 130 Wash. 419, and subsequent statutory changes in the procedure for checking the validity of signatures on state initiative and referendum petitions.  You also point out that the permanent registration system gives the secretary of state a complete record of registered voters, including signatures, which he did not have at the time of theHarris decision.

             You request our opinion as follows:

             (1) Does the secretary of state have power to accept withdrawals of signatures from an initiative petition to submit a proposed law to the electors and

              [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            (2) if so, does the secretary of state have authority to establish a regulation governing the withdrawal of such signatures?

             We answer both questions in the affirmative.

                                                                      ANALYSIS

            In the absence of a statute on the subject the general rule is that persons who have signed a petition may withdraw their signatures if they act in due time even though the result is to render the instrument insufficient for want of the number of signers required by law.  See 27 A.L.R. (2d) 606 and cases cited therein.

             In State ex rel. Mohr v. Seattle, 59 Wash. 68, our court stated at page 71:  "The overwhelming weight of authority sustains the right of withdrawal in such cases."  InRominger v. Nellor, 97 Wash. 693, the court held that electors signing a petition for the recall of a county commissioner have the right to withdraw their names prior to the date fixed by the county auditor for canvassing the names.

             In State ex rel. Harris v. Hinkle, 130 Wash. 419, the court considered the right of signers of an initiative petition to the voters to withdraw their names.  The court recognized the rule enunciated in its earlier decisions and then observed at page 435:

             "* * * we are confident that they should not be allowed to withdraw their signatures voluntarily so as to arrest the petition on its way to the voters after it has received the number of signers required by law, been examined, found sufficient, and the only thing incumbent upon the secretary of state is to canvass the vote upon it and certify the result."

             It is important to note that theHarris case was decided in 1924.  Under the law then in effect the local registration officers (city clerks and county auditors) were the officials who compared the signatures on the registration records to establish their authenticity.  After this check the petitions were sent to the secretary of state to  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] count the number of signatures and to check for possible duplication of names.  It is not surprising that the court determined under the statute then in effect that for the secretary of state to permit withdrawals of names at that stage of the proceedings would result in unutterable confusion and frustrate the aims of the law.

             In the general election of 1932 the people approved an initiative measure providing for the permanent registration of voters.  Under this statute each registration officer is required to have every registered voter sign in triplicate a registration card containing his full name, full address and the name or number of the precinct in which he is registered.  RCW 29.07.090.  RCW 29.07.120 requires local registration officers to transmit each week to the secretary of state these "third cards" and to certify their authenticity.

             RCW 29.07.130 provides as follows:

             "The third cards shall be kept on file in the office of the secretary of state in such manner as will be most convenient for, and for the sole purpose of, checking initiative and referendum petitions and mailing pamphlets required for constitutional amendments and by the initiative and referendum procedure.  They shall not be open to public inspection or be used for any other purpose."

             Under the provision of chapter 144, Laws of 1933, the comparison of signatures on initiative petitions by the local registration officers was eliminated.  Now the complete processing of state initiative and referendum measures, including the verification of signatures, is handled exclusively by the secretary of state.  Chapter 29.79 RCW.

             We are convinced that if the above statutes had been in effect at the time of the decision in the Harris case that the court would have reached a different result.  We are of the opinion that under existing law the rule stated in Rominger v. Nellor, supra, is applicable and that names may be withdrawn from initiative petitions.

              [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            While the overwhelming weight of authority supports the rule that names may be withdrawn from initiative petitions there is some disagreement in the cases as to the time and manner in which such withdrawals may be accomplished.  83 C.J.S. 21,, Statutes, § 123h, contains this language:

             "A signer of an initiative petition may withdraw from such petition in an appropriate manner and at the proper time, on establishment of the identity of the signer with that of the party indicating withdrawal, which is the important matter to be determined when the signer of a petition desires to withdraw his name.  * * *"

             Our court stated in the Harris case at page 434 that

             "* * * the greatest liberality should be shown to voluntary signers on such petitions to voluntarily withdraw at some time before their signatures become final.  * * *"

             We believe that your office is in the best position to determine the deadline for such withdrawals.

             RCW 29.04.080 provides in part:

             "The secretary of state shall make rules and regulations not inconsistent with the state, city and town election laws to facilitate the execution of their provisions in an orderly manner.  * * *"

             We conclude that it would be eminently proper for the secretary of state to promulgate a regulation definitely prescribing the time within which withdrawals of signatures will be accepted and the formality with which such withdrawals must be executed.

              [[Orig. Op. Page 5]]

            We hope the foregoing analysis will prove helpful.

 Very truly yours,
DON EASTVOLD
Attorney General 

ANDY G. ENGEBRETSEN
Assistant Attorney General

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