One fundamental fact about democracy almost goes without saying: Anyone who tries to rewrite any law should be identified. The public deserves such disclosure and citizens are owed such accountability. In fact, it’s guaranteed in this state by the Public Records Act, approved by voters as part of a sunshine initiative in 1972.
Here’s another equally compelling fact: Anyone who signs a petition for an initiative or a referendum is trying to change the law, and he or she cannot expect to barge into the legislative process — often in ways that could bring monumental changes in government — anonymously.
Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the state’s policy of releasing initiative and referendum petitions to anyone who requests them under terms of the Public Records Act. The case involves the release of petitions of last year’s Referendum 71, which was approved by voters and affirmed legal rights of domestic partnerships. R-71 sponsors have argued that releasing the names could lead to intimidation or harassment of those who signed. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the state policy of releasing petitions to the public, but that ruling was appealed to the federal level.
Fortunately, Washingtonians have two Republicans working feverishly to protect the public’s right to know how its government works. Secretary of State Sam Reed has repeated his vow to “defend Washington citizens’ strong desire for transparency, openness and accountability in government, and the public’s belief that our state and local public documents must be available for public inspection.”
And the man who will lead that defense, literally, is Attorney General Rob McKenna, who will argue the case before the high court. We hope McKenna is as successful in this effort as he was a couple of years ago when he convinced the Supreme Court to approve (by a 7-2 vote) Washington state’s top two primary.
Reed and McKenna make a lot more sense in this issue than another Republican, state Rep. Mike Armstrong of Wenatchee. According to a Yakima Herald-Republic editorial on Jan. 15, Armstrong made this absurd statement in his argument to keep secret the signatories of initiative and referendum petitions: “We need to be cognizant about the risks of making this information public, especially at a time when police officers have been targeted.” How offensive. The editorial called it a “cynical attempt to hide the names of petition-signers,” also observing, “We would like to remind (Armstrong) that the recent deaths of law enforcement officers in this state had absolutely nothing to do with (any) participation in signing petitions for initiatives.”
And here’s an interesting take in an editorial by The Spokesman-Review in Spokane: “Petition circulators … don’t know if signers are residents or registered voters of if they’ve previously signed another copy of the petition. Only elections officials can ascertain that, but who holds the officials accountable if documents are not available for public inspection?” Interesting question.
The most powerful player in this legal drama is McKenna, who had this to say about the challenge that wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court: “This case involves a direct attack on public disclosure and transparency in elections.” He couldn’t be more correct, and the justices of U.S. Supreme Court would be wise to agree with him.