As reported in the Seattle Times, a federal judge in Tacoma, Washington, is expected to rule in the next two weeks on whether the 137,500 names collected on Referendum 71 petitions should be made public. The 2009 signature gathering campaign by Protect Marriage was an effort to use a popular referendum to overturn the state legislature’s domestic-partnership law.
As the lead author of an amicus brief on behalf of the state of Washington and its defense of the state’s Public Records Act in the 2010 case, Doe v. Reed, in which the US Supreme Court upheld the state’s interest in disclosure, there is no question that the names on the petitions should be made public. As I wrote in my amicus brief, there’s little credible evidence that signers of Referendum 71 petitions in Washington were subject to threats or harassment. As our amicus brief states:
Nor does disclosure create any risk of intimidation or harassment of signers. Of the approximately 600,000 voters who signed referendum petitions in Washington in the last decade, Petitioners have failed to identify a single individual who claims to have been harassed or intimidated as a result of mere disclosure of her signature. More than a million names of signers of petitions for referenda and initiatives opposing gay marriage have been posted on the internet. Yet there is no evidence that any of these signers has faced any threat of retaliation or harassment by reason of that disclosure.
Furthermore, as we note in our brief:
Disclosure does not “infringe ‘privacy of identity, association and belief,’ as Petitioners suggest, because there is no reasonable expectation or assumption of privacy or secrecy: any voter who signs a petition knows that her signature, name and address, and the fact that she is signing, are being put on paper in the hands of a stranger, in a public place, in front of others, and then submitted to a government agency. Further, public disclosure of petitions is widespread and routine in states that allow ballot initiatives and referenda.
Public disclosure of signatures on ballot measures is also necessary to ensure fraud is not being committed during signature gathering phase and the state of Washington has a compelling interest in making signatures part of the public record.
U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle should heed the words of Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote pointedly in his concurring opinion in Doe v. Reed, why disclosure is necessary, and can embolden citizens.
There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self governance…Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.