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August 12, 2009 at 3:59 PM

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Civil Disagreement: Should petition signatures be disclosed?

Posted by Bruce Ramsey

Civil disagreements with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board, is a weekly feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Here Bruce and Lynne argue whether opponents of a referendum petition should have the right to demand the names of the people who signed it.

Lynne Varner, left, and Bruce Ramsey

Bruce Ramsey: Lynne, the question here is whether the names and addresses of citizens who sign referendum petitions should be given to anybody who asks. I don’t think they should.

The question about disclosure has risen in regard to Referendum 71, which (if enough signatures are validated) will offer the public a vote on a law of gay civil unions. The Legislature passed the bill, the governor signed it, and it would have become law except that opponents filed a petition of referendum against it. The petition required signatures, and the opponents collected them. It’s not clear they have enough, and if they don’t, civil unions become law. If they have enough, the bill goes to a public vote.

Some of the more zealous supporters of gay civil unions are angry about that. In their view, marriage is their right and shouldn’t be subject to a vote. One group has demanded copies of all the petitions—electronic copies that could be posted on the Internet. The idea is to allow anyone to search through the records to see who signed the petition, and maybe confront that person.

There is an implied threat here. The attorney for the R-71 effort quotes a web page on which a man writes:

"I advocate using violence against the property of ALL of those who are working tirelessly to HURT my family; starting with churches and government property. Government is enabling a vote on whether or not I "should be allowed" to see my husband [sic] while he is dying in the hospital - any NORMAL man would be driven to get a gun and kill those who tried such evil cruelty against his loved ones."

It is already illegal to harass people like that. But it can be done, and this combination of public disclosure plus the Internet makes it easier to do it than ever before. Further, there is the threat, and that alone will make people afraid to sign petitions. And that’s a bad outcome. Whatever you think of gay civil unions (and I don't oppose them) it's bad to make people afraid to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Clearly, the Secretary of State needs to check these names to see which ones are valid. But why should opponents have the names and addresses? Why shouldn’t petition-signing be like voting? How you vote is secret. It’s your business. Why shouldn’t the petitions you sign be your business, too? The argument is advanced that you are “making law,” which makes you like a legislator, and we need to know how our legislator votes. But we need to know how our legislator votes because he is subject to our vote. A petition signer is not. A petition signer is not acting for us; he is acting for himself only. He is a private citizen. When you sign a petition of referendum or initiative, you should have the privacy of a private citizen.

Lynne Varner replies: Bruce, you've always opposed special protections, including on important civil rights matters, but suddenly you think petition-signers are in need of government protections? I would remain speechless but that would be a disservice to our readers.

The state Public Disclosure Commission did the right thing Tuesday when it rejected a request to seal the names of donors to R-71. Referendum and initiative petitions are public records; people who sign such petitions are engaging in the legislative process and become part of the public record.

Don't want to be part of the public process? Don't sign petitions that have a chance of escaping your kitchen.,

It doesn't matter which side you are on in this campaign to overturn Washington state's newly expanded domestic partnership law, the public's interest ought to always trump the interest of a few.

I'll assume R-71 supporters are being on the level - and not turning this into a political sideshow - in reports of bullying and harassment. But government's role is limited to protect their civil rights, not their feelings. They have the right to participate in a democratic process, under which petitions fall, and this right is protected. Assault and harassment charges should be filed against anyone who seeks to prevent R-71 supporters from exercising their political rights. That's it. Its the limited role of government you speak so fondly of Bruce.

Identifying information, including names, hometowns and campaign contribution amounts are rightly part of our transparent democratic system. The PDC has been evenhanded and judicious about this in the past. This story offers a bit of history including the commission's rejection in 1994 of an argument similar to Ref. 71 backers, made by gay-rights groups fighting anti-civil rights campaigns.

My grandparents faced real, not imagined, threats when they sought to exercise their political rights. Yet they voted regularly and may have signed a petition or two for all I know. You know why they did it? They had the courage of their convictions. Ref. 71 supporters don't need special protections; they need the courage to stand by their signatures and donations.

Bruce Ramsey replies:I didn't address the issue of disclosing the donors to the campaign as well as the signers of the petitions. It's a similar question, but I don't think I come out on the same place on it. There are fewer donors than petition signers, donors have the choice of donating a little or a lot, and donors are playing a more active, influential role than petition signers are. And further: it has been established practice for donor names and amounts to be disclosed, and in a way that can be searched on the Internet. Donors expect it. I think the argument to shield them is weaker than the argument to shield petition signers.

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