Monday, May 3, 2010

Petition Drives have No Expectation of Privacy

You are in a hurry with kids in tow. As you get out of your car and walk over to the post office a woman approaches. She asks you to sign a petition for a citizen’s initiative that supports marriage. Without reading the statement as focused as you should on the official looking form, you sign your name in a rush so that your kids won’t run out in traffic.

Two weeks later, you get a call from a stranger. She asks if you signed a petition that requested the state to place a measure on the ballot demanding a roll back on domestic partner benefits. You are surprised that someone called you.

Did you think that you would have some privacy when you signed the petition?

It is hard to believe anyone’s privacy could be maintained in this situation. When you signed the petition you could see all the other names on the list. Someone could have been casually watching while you signed. The workers that earn money from every name they get on the list could have made photocopies of the petitions. This would insure that they have proof of their income. When the lists are collected for formal presentation to the state, there will be copies made. Finally, the petitions are presented to the state in an open forum.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on this question April 28 in a case from Washington. Gay rights groups are asking for the names to be released on a petition for Referendum 71. It is a ballot measure aimed at rolling back domestic partnership rights for same sex couples. State law in Washington requires the release of names on petition drives. Some people in the state fear reprisals from the gay rights groups.

The names should not be kept secret because people must be able to trust a citizen’s initiative. They are started by people that would like to ask the voters of a state if they think something should be changed. If enough people think the same way, the issue gets on the ballot. The people that sign the petition must be real and registered voters along with various other requirements depending on the state. If those names on the petition can’t be challenged how does anyone know they are real people?

A similar issue to this came up in the last national election. An organization was registering people to vote. If was found, by people making challenges to the names on the list that some were not eligible. Now the organization that did that, as well as other things, no longer exists. ACORN has closed its doors, partly because of the challenge.

Responsible communities must operate in the open so that everyone can trust the process. Keeping names on a petition drive private only builds mistrust.

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