Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed says it best: “When voters sign petitions (for initiatives and referenda), they are trying to change state law. (Officials in his office) believe that changing state law should be open to public view.” To that end, The Columbian has repeatedly expressed the same view regarding Referendum 71, the 2009 ballot measure rejected by 53 percent of voters, thus affirming legislation protecting the rights of people in domestic partnerships.
State Attorney General Rob Mc- Kenna — like Reed, a Republican — holds the same belief: “The people of our state have long asserted their right to access government records, including ballot measure petitions. Barring the threat of serious harm or harassment to persons identified in such records, the state should always err on the side of transparency and accountability.”
That is why all Washingtonians should applaud Monday’s decision by U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin H. Settle allowing public access to signatures on Referendum 71 petitions. The group Protect Marriage Washington had sought to keep the signatures private, but Settle ruled the group did not provide compelling evidence that disclosure of the names would subject signatories to threats, harassment or reprisals.
A false comparison occasionally presented in this 2-year-old debate is that signing a petition is a private act, much like voting. But that logic withers under the weight of three facts:
• Voter registration records are in fact public record (although how you vote is known only to you).
• Voting is done in private, whereas petition signatures are gathered in public. Comparing these two acts is the tactic of the desperate debater.
• This has nothing to do with voting and, in fact, has everything to do with changing law. And in that regard, Reed provided another astute observation in an interview with seattlepi.com. He correctly compared sponsoring an initiative or referendum to sponsoring legislation: “It is a very public act. When we have legislators sponsoring a bill, they can’t say, ‘Keep it a secret.’ Neither should anyone else.” Absolutely.
Later on Monday, Reed’s office made the signatures available to the public. The cost of a DVD containing the signatures is $15, plus shipping costs. The DVDs can be purchased through the State Archives, by calling 360-586-1492 or emailing email@example.com.
Rare is the issue in our state that has been so vigorously scrutinized as this dispute over petition signatures. This long path to safeguard the people’s right to know began on July 28, 2009, when Protect Marriage Washington argued that disclosure of the signatures would be unconstitutional. Ultimately, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with McKenna arguing for disclosure. The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the signatures should be public information, but did not address the specific argument as it pertains to Referendum 71. On June 29 of this year, the parties filed motions for summary judgment. Settle correctly determined that sufficient threats did not exist to those who signed petitions. Even more, he ruled that all police efforts to address any alleged harassment had been “sufficient or unnecessary.”
Today, more figurative sun shines on Washingtonians’ governing of themselves. The dual message is clear: Initiatives and referenda remain key components in that governing process. But equally important is the right for every citizen to know who is trying to change the law.