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Originally published Tuesday, April 27, 2010 at 4:20 PM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

On signatures, support the citizen

Seattle Times editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey argues that the state ought not to name citizens who sign initiative and referendum petitions.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Attorney General Rob McKenna stands up at the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday to argue that the state has the right to name names. I would rather it did not. In my view, your signature on a petition of initiative or referendum is none of your neighbors' business. Or your co-workers' business. Or some "activist's" business.

Mine is a minority view among journalists. We journalists are professional nosers into other people's lives. We want all secrets to be disclosed except our own.

To disclose our confidential sources would, we think, "chill" our freedom, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment. And so it would. But posting the names on petitions would have the same effect. It would chill the right to petition, which is also guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The voters of Washington have had the initiative and referendum since 1912. During the 20th century, the state did not release the names of signers, even after the passage of the Public Records Act in 1972. Releasing names was begun under the current secretary of state, Sam Reed.

The state makes two main arguments for this. The first is that when you sign, other people can see your name on the petition sheet. That makes your name public. This is the in-for-an-inch, in-for-a-mile argument. If you like it, try this: At the library, the person behind you can see the books and DVDs you are checking out. Therefore, that should be public, too.

Next time you leave your front door open, consider that there is a difference between letting a few random strangers see inside your home and posting it as an open house.

The second argument for naming names is that when you sign a petition you are proposing to change the law, and therefore the public has a right to know who you are. But the ones proposing to change the law are the sponsors — the Tim Eymans of the effort. The public knows who they are. It doesn't need the names of 300,000 signers.

Citizens who sign an initiative petition are not elected legislators. They are registered voters, representing only themselves. And when a voter participates in a public election, the ballot is secret.

The reason for a secret ballot is to let you vote the way you want, without having to explain yourself to some busybody. The same should apply to signing a petition.

Recall how this issue came up. The Legislature passed a law that granted same-sex couples and all couples older than 62 the rights and benefits of marriage. It was dubbed the "everything but marriage" law. Opponents began collecting signatures to put it on the ballot, hoping citizens would vote it down. In the final month of collection, two "activists" announced they would get a CD of the names from the state, post it on their website and invite the public to confront friends, relatives, co-workers and neighbors who signed the hated petition.

Their motive was to intimidate. It was to make people afraid to sign, and to keep the measure off the ballot.

Referendum 71 made the ballot, was approved, and settled the issue.

This case is not about that. It is about how to handle the next issue, and the one after. It applies equally to the left or the right, because ballot measures come from both sides. It is about whether, when you sign a petition, some pinhead can post your name on his website so other people will pester you about your political opinions. It is about whether the state's rules will protect you, or protect him.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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