BOISE – Idaho has much at stake in Washington’s big U.S. Supreme Court case over whether referendum petition signatures should be public. “Our initiative and referendum statute is very similar to Washington’s and Oregon’s,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, at whose request Idaho joined 22 other states in filing “friend of the court” briefs backing Washington’s position – that the signatures be made public.
“I can’t think of something any more public, that should be public, than somebody signing an initiative petition that is basically using the legislative power reserved to the people,” Ysursa said. “It’s part of an open and transparent process, just like (legislators) voting on a piece of legislation would be. That was our basic reason to join in, and the other states that have initiative and referendum seem to agree with us.”
The 23 states, which include Oregon, Utah, Arizona and Colorado and are being led by Ohio, are among a long list of parties that have filed supporting briefs in the case. They include the American Conservative Union, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the National Conference of State Legislatures. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Washington state, and the high court will hear arguments Wednesday.
The group Protect Marriage Washington sued to prevent the release of the names of petition-signers on Referendum 71, which sought unsuccessfully to overturn a same-sex domestic partnership law. The group contends that state public records laws that make such information public are unconstitutional because they subject those signers to harassment for exercising their right to free speech.
The states, in their brief, say signing petitions for an initiative or referendum is not political speech but legislative action. “The people’s exercise of their sovereign referendum power is, by its very nature, a public act,” the brief states. They also note the significance of state public records laws. “Every state has recognized its compelling interest in open government – both as a check on government power and as a means of informing the public – by enacting public records acts and open meetings laws,” the brief says. It also contends that states won’t be able to guard against fraud or protect the integrity of their petition processes if the names of petition-signers are made secret.
The rights of initiative and referendum were placed in Idaho’s constitution in 1912, in the same section that says the state House and Senate can pass laws.
Ysursa, an attorney, said, “I think it’s a step backwards for openness in government if that case is not upheld.”