Privacy v Transparency, 11

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My post last week on the battle over releasing the names and addresses of people who signed a petition placing Washington state's domestic partnership law on the ballot generated some confusing responses that seem to me worth addressing.

First, it's important to distinguish between the privacy interests of people who merely sign a petition to place a referendum on the ballot and people who financially support a referendum campaign.  While there are sound arguments for allowing anonymous political donations (especially small individual donations below a set minimum), the public interest in revealing financial backers of a political campaign (especially organizational or institutional backers) is much stronger than the interest in revealing the names of individual citizens who sign a petition.  

Why shouldn't the privacy of the ballot box extend to referendum petitions?  We protect the individual right to vote for or against a ballot question in secret in order to prevent voter intimidation and encourage participation; why shouldn't we protect an individual right to cast a secret vote (by signing a petition) to place a question on the ballot? Of course petition signatures ought to be verified to prevent fraud (and the process of obtaining signatures requires oversight), but verification is the job of the secretary of state (or some other official.)  Somehow I don't think we would be well served by vigilante verification of referendum petitions anymore than by vigilante verification of voter ID's on election day.  

It is also a mistake to assume that everyone who signs a referendum petition is expressing an opinion on its merits.  I can imagine signing a petition putting a candidate or a question on the ballot that I opposed, or regarded indifferently, if I believed that either the candidate or the question should be the subject of a popular vote.  In any case, I don't agree that we have a legal right to know where our families, friends, employers, or local businesses stand on controversial questions of rights, as one comment suggests.  If you want to know where they stand, you should ask them.  It's not the state's job to tell you what other people think.

referendum ballot.JPG




(Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/frankieroberto/3065244369)


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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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