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February 22, 2010

What About Verifying Those Signatures?

We have already received a question we expected about Downsize DC Foundation’s decision to participate in, and support an amicus curiae brief in the Doe v Reed case. Since we expect it to come up more than once (it already has) we’re posting the answer here on the blog.

One Downsizer-Dispatch subscriber writes, “As referendums work a certain percentage of valid signatures are required in order for a petition to put an issue on the ballot. Your short-sighted (but populist) desire to make those signatures anonymous invites fraud in what is inherently the legislative process.”

So what about verifying all those signatures? We were concerned about this issue as well, and researched it before agreeing to participate.

What follows is text taken from the Petition for Certification submitted to the Supreme Court by counsel James Bopp. We have removed the citations to make this infinitely easier to read, but the Petition for Cert is available online if you wish to get all the details…

Washington’s statutory scheme has protections for petition signer confidentiality. Referendum petitions are not made public by the statute that regulates referenda and initiatives, and proponents and opponents may have observers at the Secretary’s verification, but observers may not make any record of names, addresses, or other information on the petitions.
Where the Secretary determines that the collected signatures are inadequate (and a court confirms, if appeal is taken), the petition is destroyed. So the names and other information of petition signers are divulged to the proponents of the referendum and the government for a very limited purpose — to ensure that there is sufficient public support for a referendum to justify placing it on the ballot and to allow public officials to verify the petition signatures.

For decades, and until just recently, public officials in Washington have repeatedly reaffirmed the confidentiality of petition signatures. Attorney general opinions from 1938 and 1956 stated that referendum petitions were not subject to public disclosure. Even after the Public Records Act (“PRA”) was enacted, then Secretary of State Kramer declared that the petitions were not subject to public release because “the release of these signatures [has] no legal value, but could have deep political ramifications to those signing.”

Although historically such petitions have not been considered public records, the current Secretary considers referendum petitions public records under the Public Records Act and thereby subject to public disclosure under RCW § 42.56.070. Absent the stay issued by this Court, the petitions would have been subject to release to requesting groups.

Among those requesting a petition copy under the PRA are and, who have publicly stated their intent to place the names and addresses of those who signed Referendum 71 on the Internet, and to make the names searchable, with the goal of encouraging individuals to have “personal” and “uncomfortable” conversations with petition signers.

As you can see,

  1) There is a review process to verify the validity of the petitions, and the signers thereof.
  2) Citizens can take part in that review.

The issues in this case have NOTHING to do with either promoting or challenging a petition. The issue is the publication of names, along with personal contact information, and whether or not this information can be used in a campaign of intimidation.


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