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Signing a petition is a public act

Post by David Seago on Oct. 16, 2009 at 12:31 pm with 6 Comments »
October 16, 2009 12:31 pm

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to treat initiative and referendum signatures as public records.

Aside from the principle that the public has a right to know who is trying to make law via the ballot in Washington, there’s another aspect: It’s a public act when a registered voter signs a petition put before him or her, in many cases in a public place by a stranger paid by a for-profit signature-gathering outfit who has no real interest at all in the issue involved.

Why then should a petition signer have any expectation of privacy concerning his public declaration that he or she would like to see the issue in question put to the voters? Again, signing is a public act, regardless of where it takes place.

I don’t condone any harassment of petition signers that might result from signatures being made public. But it seems to me that the ones most likely to draw fire are campaign contributors, and their contributions are already a matter of public record in Washington.

As for my earlier concerns about potential commercial use of signature lists, I add here a comment from Toby Nixon, the former GOP state legislator who heads the Washington Coalition for Open Government:

As I wrote yesterday, the problem is that 42.56 doesn’t define “commercial
purpose” very well. I tried to clarify the definition in a 2006 bill, and to
give the law some teeth (actual penalties for misuse of records for
commercial purposes), but got shot down by all the lobbyists who came in
objecting because of all the ways they currently use lists obtained from
government databases. (The motivation for the bill was a law firm that was
harvesting accident reports to create lists of accident victims and selling
them to chiropractors who used them for marketing purposes.)

Most agencies deal with 42.56.070(9) by having requesters who are getting a
list of names sign a statement swearing to not use the list for “commercial
purposes”. The Secretary of State could do the same — and probably does,
although Eyman doesn’t mention that in his rantings. I don’t know if any
agency has ever tried to enforce such a statement, and on what basis —
contract law, false swearing, etc.

I don’t believe I’ve seen any statement from Bryan Wahl as to why he is
requesting the petition forms. Although Tim Eyman accuses him of planning to
use them for commercial purposes, I seriously doubt Tim has any direct
evidence of that (Tim makes assumptions about motives quite often). I have
left Bryan Wahl a voicemail asking him to call me back, and I plan to ask
him outright what his plans are for the records.

Leave a comment Comments → 6
  1. jimkingjr says:

    Very weak arguments, David. Agencies can put the language out there on commercial purposes, but the law does not support that. What will happen to an agency who refuses to produce a public record because a requestor refuses to sign any limitation on its use? Where does the Open Public Records Act give any agency any control over the use a requestor may make of any public record? That Toby Nixon failed to get any such language added to the law is simply more proof that no such restriction exists.

    As for the “public act” argument- come on, David, you are better than taking the one type of case many people despise- the paid signature gatherer- and elevating it to the standard. Many signatures are signed in private places, are not gathered by a paid signature gatherer, or are signed with an expectation of privacy- an expectation strengthened by decades of precedent.

    Your argument is no better than saying a voter who went tro the polls in a public place to take an action making law should have his vote revealed.

    Signing is as much a private act as is voting.

    I’m still looking for even one actual public good achieved by opening the petitions as public record. Just one.

    So far the only actual results that appear possible are harassment and data-mining.

  2. Harassment of those involved in political activities definitely does happen.

    Most likely these lists would be used to generate political profiles based on multiple datapoints. I assume that their are larger law firms that maintain such databases of those that testify – which is legal – even though harassment from same is definitely not.

    A petition is definitely somewhere between public testimony and voting, hopefully the further discussion will be respectful of those that operate anonymously and seek to remain so, such as anon commenters here.

  3. jimkingjr says:

    Average Joe and Jane citizen do not wantb to discuss their beliefs, or have their political positions open to discussion. It is the number one reason most people do not attend political party caucuses. They hold these things to be private.

    The minority of us are out front and open about where we stand.

    Stripping privacy from petitions further discourages the average person from participating in the political process. Period.

  4. villager98 says:

    Signing a petition to create, change or repeal a law is a legislative act and as such is, and should be, allowed as much secrecy as we allow the state’s legislators when they enact laws. If Joe and Jane Citizen shouldn’t be trying to legislate their personal beliefs and political positions if they don’t want to do it in public.

  5. jimkingjr says:

    villager- so, we should reveal the individual votes on an initiative or referendum, too, since that is just as much a legislative act as when legislators actually vote? Reveal petitions and get rid of the secret ballot!

  6. klthompson says:

    I sign just about every petition I see and I often vote the other way. I just like to see diverse items on the ballot. I don’t care if my name is released but if I am ever approached in a threatening way because I signed a petition that person will certainly regret it.

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