This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
That didn’t take long.
When a federal judge ruled last month that the First Amendment bars disclosure of the petitions that put Referendum 71 on the ballot, he opened the door to a potential gutting of Washington’s open records laws. The gutting is already being attempted.
Some opponents of the state’s new same-sex domestic-benefits law, which R-71’s passage would preserve, are now pressing to go far beyond keeping petition signatures secret. A lawsuit they filed in federal court Wednesday demands that many – probably most – campaign donations also be kept secret. In fact, it insists that the Bill of Rights mandates such secrecy.
The implications of this claim are shocking. If successful, it would crack the bedrock foundation of campaign disclosure laws in Washington and other states.
Both the petition and the donation-disclosure cases have the potential to hide elections in a black box.
If the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upholds petition secrecy on First Amendment grounds, every petition for every initiative and referendum – throughout the country – will have to be treated like a state secret. There will be no way for citizens to independently assess whether elections officials verified signatures properly and lawfully put measures on the ballot.
The consequences of donor-secrecy could well be worse, depending on where the judiciary might draw the line.
Family PAC, the organization suing to conceal donations against R-71, wants to overturn Washington’s policy of letting the public see the names and addresses of anyone giving more than $25 to a campaign.
The political action committee acknowledges that citizens ought to be able to scrutinize donations above some threshold. What should that threshold be? Family PAC’s attorney told the Seattle Times that was up to the state, but he offered some guidelines: “$10,000? Maybe. Certainly not $25 or $100.”
We trust that federal appeals courts will see the safety in that $25 trigger point.
Many schemes for campaign finance reform have been advanced over the decades. None compares in importance to simply letting citizens know who is paying for a candidacy or an effort to defeat or approve a ballot measure.
The secret ballot is a sacred right. But the money and machinations that create the contents of that ballot are everybody’s business.