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Signing a petition is a public act

Post by David Seago on Oct. 16, 2009 at 12:31 pm |
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.

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