The public records battle over signatures to the Washington Referendum 71 - the proposed repeal of the new "everything but marriage" domestic partnership law - is going national. Wendy Kaminer in the Atlantic has a piece on the dispute, not about about the merits of the referendum itself but about a side issue - whether the signatures are a public record.
The referendum (to overturn the law) was launched by the group Protect Marriage Washington and the Faith and Freedom Network, which is trying to collect the 120,577 petition signatures needed to bring the issue to the ballot.
Their opposition is taking a number of approaches, of them being a close monitoring of the signatures. From the group WhoSigned.org:
When signatures for Referendum 71 have been verified WhoSigned.Org will:
Work to make this public record signature information accessible and searchable on the internet.
Flag the 3% signature sample that is certified by the Elections Division of the Secretary of State.
Provide Washington State Voters with a way to check that the public record of their advocacy is correct.
Provide Washington State Voters with a way of reporting when their signature has been recorded either fraudulently or in error.
The concern with that is one of harassment. Attorney James Bopp argued that "Individuals must be allowed to debate the merits of Referendum 71 without having to worry about whether they will be harassed for offering an opinion." The spokesman for a key anti-referendum group, Josh Friedes, campaign manager for a coalition of supporters, Washington Families Standing Together, seemed to indicate some concern with the publication effort, and stood neutral on the lawsuit.
Bopp took his argument to court, and federal District Judge Benjamin Settle last week granted a temporary order preventing public release of the referendum petitions, at least until another hearing on the matter in September.
Kaminer's view in the Atlantic is similar to Bopp's: "The claim that publicizing the names of people who sign controversial petitions will chill political participation is not far-fetched or trivial. The countervailing interest in transparency - when it requires exposing private citizens (not public officials or organizational leaders) - to public opprobrium for their political views, seems relatively weak by comparison. Transparency is not an end in itself but a means of insuring accountability - of public officials and, arguably, public figures and movement leaders. But why should ordinary, private citizens be held to account for their views in the public sphere?"
Why? Most basically, because signing a petition for an initiative or referendum is more simply holding or expressing an opinion as a private citizen: It is taking part in the public lawmaking process, one in which that person's name (together with others) is specifically being used to effect a public result. It is not the same thing as talking to a friend, or even dashing off an anonymous post to a blog. It is an official act, with official consequences. There's nothing wrong with doing that, of course, as long as you believe in what you're signing. But if you're going to do it, the least the rest of us should expect is that you do it in the sunshine, that you have the courage of your convictions.
Not to mention the point that the list of names ought to be open to review and challenge, in the case that someone involved should take it into their heads to do something illegal, in this case where the number of valid signatures may be very close to the legal requirement. (more…)