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Washington makes certain petition signers' names public

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  1. Freedom of Information
Information regarding the signers of initiative petitions in Washington were made public Sept. 30 in response to a state superior…

Information regarding the signers of initiative petitions in Washington were made public Sept. 30 in response to a state superior court judge’s decision to lift a ban on the disclosure of 11 petitions, according to the Office of the Secretary of State.

Superior Court Judge Richard Hicks removed his temporary restraining order on initiative petitions that had been requested for public inspection after a hearing on Sept. 3. The reversal was in reaction to a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Doe v. Reed, which determined that, as a general matter, the release of petition signers' names does not violate signers' First Amendment rights.

In October 2009, a public affairs strategies firm requested the names of individuals who had signed 11 petitions for referendums on a variety of causes including property tax limits, estate tax repeal and transportation issues. Nine of the petitions were sponsored by Tim Eyman, a local activist who polls the community for hot-button issues and typically chooses one or two each year to sponsor for ballot referendum, said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Eyman filed suit to block disclosure of the petitions he had sponsored, arguing that signers had a right to privacy, Nixon said. The coalition, a nonprofit public access advocacy group, filed requests for the same petitions so it would be able to intervene in the lawsuit. Judge Hicks put a temporary ban on their release pending the outcome of Doe v. Reed.

“The state superior court judge put that case on hold, pending the resolution of [Doe], because he wanted to know that the Supreme Court would say that there was a federal constitutional guarantee of privacy for petition signers. When [Doe] determined that there was not such a blanket right of privacy applied to petitions, Judge Hicks vacated his temporary restraining order, allowing those 11 petitions to be released,” Nixon said.

In Doe, a request under the Washington Public Records Act was made for copies of a petition, including names of voters who signed it, to put a referendum R-71 on the ballot that would reject a law expanding the rights of state-registered domestic partners, including same-sex domestic partners.

Protect Marriage Washington, the organization that sponsored the petition for referendum, filed a motion seeking to stop the disclosure, arguing that signers would be subjected to threats, harassment and reprisals.

James Bopp Jr., counsel for the petitioners in Doe, said that everyone who has been publicly identified with the R-71 initiative has endured some kind of harassment, including intimidation, death threats and property vandalism.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that “disclosure of referendum petitions does not as a general matter violate the First Amendment,” according to court documents.

“We’re pleased the Supreme Court ruled in favor of disclosure, upholding the public’s right to double-check the work of signature gatherers and government — and giving them the ability to learn which voters are directing the state to hold an election on a new law,” said Washington Attorney General Robert McKenna in a June release.

The court returned the case back to the federal district court to determine if disclosure would be a constitutional violation in the specific case of R-71 due to the heated controversy about the topic.

That case is currently in the discovery stage with a conference scheduled for Nov. 15 to determine how the court will proceed, said Scott Bienieck, associate attorney with Bopp, Coleson & Bostrom, which represented the petitioners.

Microfilm and DVD copies of the 11 petitions are available to the public free of charge at the Washington State Archives in Olympia.