OLYMPIA – The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the names of Washington voters who sign a petition to put a law on the ballot can be made public.
The high court could hear the case of Doe v. Reed as early as April, taking up the fight over the names and addresses of people who signed petitions to put Referendum 71 on last year’s November ballot.
That referendum sought to overturn expanded rights for same-sex and elderly heterosexual couples. Supporters of gay rights filed a public records request for the names of everyone who signed the petitions; referendum sponsors objected, saying they feared the signers would be harassed.
A few hours after the nation’s high court announced it was adding the case to its schedule, a state legislative committee considered dueling bills spawned by the dispute. One would provide an exemption to the state’s Public Records Act for the names and addresses on initiative or referendum petitions; the other would state categorically that they are public records.
Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chairman of the State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee, said he couldn’t reschedule the bills for later hearings just because the court agreed to take up the R-71 case. He plans to talk with House leadership on whether to schedule a committee vote that could send one or both bills to the House floor.
Katie Blinn of the state attorney general’s office told the committee that under current law, a petition is a public record that must be released on request because there is no exemption that covers them. State policy for the last 10 years has been to release them.
“We’ve been releasing images of petitions, not a searchable database,” Blinn said. “You can’t search these pictures easily on an Excel spreadsheet.”
The issue ended up in court last year. Most recently, a divided panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the signatures are public records, but the release of the names was put on hold pending the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Shawn Newman, an attorney for the Initiative and Referendum Institute, told the committee the information should remain private because citizens have a constitutional right to privacy and to petition their government anonymously, and a constitutional right trumps a state statute like the Public Records Law.
Clearly the high court is interested in the issue and has put the case on “a rocket docket,” Newman said.
Members of the committee sparred over whether signing a petition to put a law before voters is more akin to their job of passing legislation, where their actions are recorded and public, or to casting a ballot in the secrecy of the voting booth.
“If we protect the integrity of voting for citizens, we should protect the integrity of people to sign petitions,” said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Thurston County. The records could be released to people who would use them for “vengeance or purposes of harassment,” he added, and knowing that they can be released could keep people like police officers or teachers from signing a petition.
But Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Pierce County, argued that proposing and passing an initiative is like making a law, and signers should be willing to “be brave, stand up and be counted.”
“Where would we be if the signers sent the Declaration of Independence (to King George) with all the signatures blocked out? Would we even be here today?” Hurst said.
Open-government advocates said the names should be available for release and dismissed suggestions that signing a petition was like casting a ballot. “You’re not entering a voting booth to sign a petition, you’re signing it at a card table in front of a supermarket,” said Bill Will of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
But signature gatherers said the names should be kept secret. “You’re strong enough to take the flak,” Mary Ingalls, of Olympia, told legislators. “Have a little compassion for people who are weaker than you are – their jobs could be in jeopardy.”