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October 22, 2009 at 4:54 PM

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Petition Signatures Should Be Protected

Posted by Bruce Ramsey

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that it's OK for Secretary of State Sam Reed to give out the names and addresses of people who signed petitions to put Referendum 71 on the state ballot. Reed can't do it, because there is a restraining order from the U.S. Supreme Court. I'm guessing the courts will ultimately let him do it. That may be good law, but it's not good policy.

All this came about because R-71 was promoted by the opponents of gay marriage. Their referendum petition outraged the supporters, particularly gay activists, who thought they had gay marriage in the bag. A couple of these (Knowthyneighbor.org and whosigned.org) threatened to get the names of the signatories and post them. This was a clear threat that people who signed the petitions would be harassed by their neighbors. It was made during the signature campaign, and it was quite clearly a device to intimidate people from signing, and keep the measure off the ballot. (And it almost worked.)

Then came a big argument. One side said the names should be secret, because it was bad to intimidate people, and the other side said the names should be disclosed because the state public disclosure law called for it, and because the signatories were proposing legislation--that they were acting as legislators. Much of the time these arguments were mere cover: the real thing people cared about was gay marriage, and they chose the argument about signatures that would get them what they wanted on marriage.

Everyone arguing in that manner should be shut out. Dismissed. Ignored. This is about the rules for disclosing names in any petition of initiative or referendum in the future.

In its ruling, the Ninth Circuit rightly notes that you sign the petitions in public, on a sheet of paper where other people can see your name, and that you are giving your name to the government, and that supporters and opponents of the ballot measure may send people to watch the government workers validate the names.

I accept all that. You don't start out with privacy. Still, only a few people are going to see your name. Every Tom, Dick and Harry isn't going to be able to look up your name and see if you signed. Put the petitions on the Internet, and they can. And what's the point of that? Why allow that?

It's especially threatening if you're any kind of prominent person--a politician, a sports figure, the mother or father of same, etc. People will look up whether you signed this or that, just because they can. (They can do that now, and see if you voted; but not how you voted. But with signatures on a petition, they're seeing how you voted.)

With a legislator, we want to be able to look up how he voted because we vote for him. He works for us. It's not that way with a private person signing a petition. And there are only about 150 legislators, in both houses. With a successful statewide petition we're talking in the hundred thousands. Your signature--your vote, in essence--is one grain of sand on the beach. There is not a guarantee of absolute privacy, as the court said, but until now there has always been a presumption of the anonymity of the crowd.

Sending out the petitions on CDs--for opponents, or merely for commercial use--strips that away. And why? Because the Public Records Act mandates it? The act can be changed. That is easy enough. The Internet didn't even exist when people wrote the act, and nobody envisioned the public having this look-up ability. Well, now they have it. The people who think it's good that they have it should explain why, and not rely on the historical accident that an old law allows it. I think there is a stronger argument for Sam Reed to keep the petitions locked in a drawer. They should be available to an auditor to check if the signature count was correct, but not to any Joe Blow with a mind to mischief.

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