Some foes of a referendum aimed at halting a new “everything but marriage” law in Washington state plan to eventually publish online the names and addresses of everyone who signs the Referendum 71 petitions. The state Elections Division is encouraging “civil debate” on the measure and expressing concern if the signature-gathering process is suppressed or voters feel threatened in any way.
Washington Values Alliance, which opposes gay marriage and is sponsoring R-71, will begin circulating petitions this week. They’ll be racing a July 25 deadline to collect roughly 150,000 voter signatures (120,577 is the bare minimum, and a pad is suggested to cover the invalid signatures).
The new twist is that a group called whosigned.org (here is its link) intends to make the signatures available and searchable on the Internet. The referendum petition sheets, typically 10,000 or more, including the names and addresses of signers, become a public record after the sponsors actually submit them, in this case by July 25, and they are returned from Archives imaging.
Spokesmen for the new project say they want voters to think twice about signing the petitions and that opponents of R-71 should be able to talk with their neighbors and townspeople who signed to explain the ramifications. The main opposition group, however, opposes the online project and R-71 sponsors say it amounts to bullying and is aimed at suppressing signatures.
State Elections Director Nick Handy notes the the state has long been committed to open records and transparency in government, but says he’s unhappy with the thought of the petition process being used as a weapon to dampen voters’ participation in their constitutional right of petition. He says,
“A vigorous debate on the issues is always welcome, but efforts to intimidate or repress participation are not. It just doesn’t feel like the culture we have here in the state of Washington. An unhealthy chilling effect occurs when public debate reaches a point where the passion of some individuals drives some folks to take actions that are viewed by others as threatening or intimidating. We call for open and healthy public debate without resort to these methods.”
It is a crime to interfere with signature-gathering or to threaten or intimidate voters.
The state of Washington has no authority to withhold the identities of people who sign initiative or referendum petitions, just as the names and hometowns of campaign donors to ballot campaigns are available online at the Public Disclosure Commission.
“Nobody is comfortable with releasing personal information in situations like this, but it is part of transparency in government,” Handy says. “We hope people will keep their cool.”