Almost every general election ballot in Washington state includes a sprinkling of initiatives or referendums put there by citizen petition drives.
One such initiative created the state’s groundbreaking public disclosure laws, which let citizens pry open the doors that government agents prefer closed. The Sunshine Laws, in force since the 1970s, still provoke resistance.
The latest comes from, of all sources, a group of citizens who used the petition method last fall in hopes of overturning gay-rights legislation that the Legislature had approved. They failed, but the lingering question now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court is whether the signed petitions are open public records.
Having endeavored to rewrite Washington law, some of the Referendum 71 petition signers covet the secrecy that is denied to elected lawmakers, as it is to donors who fund campaigns of elected legislators or initiative and referendum campaigns.
“Anonymous free speech,” they claim, protects them from retaliation or intimidation by political critics. We assume they mean more than mere public criticism, which is an inescapable element of the robustness of the democratic system. No, we assume they mean genuine physical peril. But we haven’t heard of problems with violence or serious harassment over petition signatures in the years that Secretary of State Sam Reed has been releasing them in this initiative-happy state. Still, if it should happen, the vigorous enforcement of existing laws would be adequate protection.
Some liken the secrecy of the ballot box to secrecy of initiative petitions, which is an imaginative leap – and not simply because petition signatures are collected in such public fashion. Voters’ access to the polls is controlled by meticulously kept records. Petition circulators, on the other hand, don’t know if signers are residents or registered voters or 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?
Open government has been healthy for Washington.
The case goes to the Supreme Court as Doe vs. Reed. A better name would be Shadow vs. Sunshine.
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