Inside Opinion

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Tag: petitions


Initiative reform: First, show us the problem

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Any talk of regulating signature-gathering in the Legislature has to start with the First Amendment.

It guarantees the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Petitioning is one of the fundamentals of American liberty – right up there with freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The discussion should then move to the Washington Constitution, which guarantees the right of this state’s citizens to enact laws by initiative.

Once everyone’s clear that we’re talking about fundamental rights, under both the federal and state constitutions, then we can talk about the details.

Bills aimed at burdening the signature-gathering process have become a perennial crop in the Legislature. Time after time, Democrats frustrated by the success of conservative initiatives have attempted to make it harder for all initiatives to reach the ballot.

The usual point of attack is the individual signature-gatherer, the weakest link in the chain connecting a newly filed initiative to a place on the ballot.

Signature-gatherers must work in public places and are exposed to physical obstruction and intimidation. This is not a hypothetical threat; it happens.

A bill proposed by state Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, would require paid signature gatherers to register their addresses, photographs and full names with the secretary of state. Potentially, this would allow opponents of an initiative to take their quarrel right to the gatherer’s front door or place of employment. Whatever the intent, it would have a chilling effect on constitutionally protected activity.
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How the justices broke on the R-71 decision

People who take a “Rah, rah, our team won!” approach to Supreme Court decisions may overlook some important things about Thursday’s ruling about public disclosure and Referendum 71.

Attorney General Rob McKenna, who defended Washington’s Public Records Act, won a battle he shouldn’t have had to fight.

The people who collected signatures to put R-71 on the November ballot had asked U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle to prevent the state’s release of their petitions. Settle granted the injunction on astonishingly broad grounds, holding that they were likely to succeed in arguing that the First Amendment could require that any petition – not just theirs – be sealed upon request.

That conclusion seemed absurd, but the high court took the claim seriously enough to review it. McKenna wound up having to play defense in a game with very high stakes.

Thursday’s ruling was a matter of dodging an asteroid few people had seen coming. As far as R-71 – by itself – is concerned, the fight remains to be fought in a trial court. It will turn on whether the petitioners can produce believable evidence that they were genuinely threatened by gay-rights supporters.
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Don’t bank on ever seeing those R-71 petitions

I’m guessing Washingtonians (and citizens of other states, for that matter) will never again be able to learn the identities of people who sign initiative and referendum petitions. Across the board. Liberal and conservative petitions. Anywhere, U.S.A.

Washington’s fairly recent practice of releasing petition information has been driven by the Attorney General’s Office’s view that it’s a matter of open government and open public records law. Our editorial board agrees with that view.

But those are state laws. State laws get trumped, trounced and trampled when the U.S. Supreme Court decides they conflict with the Constitution. The court’s decision

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Signing a petition is a public act

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:

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R-71 news breaks from strange directions

Tim Eyman is known more for initiatives than journalism, but he actually broke some news last Wednesday that left the secretary of state’s office embarrassed.

Here’s a link to a Kitsap Sun blog that contains both Eyman’s blast and a rebuttal from Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Strip away Eyman’s off-putting blustering about fraud and lying, and he’s essentially right: The secretary of state’s office released no information about who signed petitions until 2006, when the practice began with one of Eyman’s initiatives. Read today’s editorial.

The reasons are innocent: State archivists’ resistance to storing records (such as petitions) in easily shared digital formats, and the fact that Sam Reed’s predecessors believed that the identities of initiative signers was confidential. But the fact remains that release is a very recent phenomenon.

We have a strong bias toward open public records, hence our arguments that the public ought to have access to petitions and most other government documents. Factor that bias in when you read our commentary. We’re also vehemently opposed to anyone harassing petition-signers, but we think that’s a problem to be dealt with in other ways – such as prosecution and public shaming.
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Fraud’s not the issue in petition disclosure

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Tim Eyman’s latest charge against state officialdom sounds like a bombshell.

The state’s most prolific initiative peddler e-mailed his supporters and the press last week to allege that the “Secretary of State has been perpetuating a fraud.”

Pretty strong words, even for the hyperbolic Eyman.

He claims that Sam Reed is lying when he says that referendum and initiative petitions and the names on them have long been considered public documents in this state. (Reed’s comments came in the wake of a legal challenge to the release of petitions related to Referendum 71, the effort to overturn the state’s “everything but marriage” law for same-sex couples.)

The problem is, this is a sideshow. The dispute over Washington public records law is effectively settled, as it pertains to petitions. The main show lies in federal court, and it revolves around the Constitution.

The secretary of state’s office has indeed been wrong to the extent that it has suggested the release of petitions has been standard practice in Washington. As Eyman asserts, none were released until three years ago, starting with Initiative 917 – the “Save Our $30 Tabs” measure. But the idea wasn’t to spank Eyman personally.
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