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Protecting the Privacy Rights of Petition Signers

Christina Tobin, Founder & Chair
Free & Equal Elections Foundation
April 15, 2010

Do petition signers have a constitutional right to keep their names undisclosed? Or should their support of various initiatives be made public? Without a doubt, keep the names private.

Currently before the U.S. Supreme Court is a case named Doe v. Reed. At issue is whether or not the names of people who signed an initiative petition to repeal Washington State’s same-sex domestic partner law should become public record. Conservative groups want to block their release, while some gay rights organizations have stated they will post the names online if they are released.

The issue of petitioners’ privacy rights is contentious. Some claim that signing a petition is not anonymous speech, while others argue it’s just like casting a ballot and disclosure would violate people’s constitutional rights to privacy.

Fearing harassment and discrimination, the same sex marriage opponents want to prevent public disclosure. The precise issue at hand is irrelevant. If petitions become public record, voters risk facing harassment and discrimination no matter what petitions they may wish to sign.

Another reason to oppose disclosure is the positive effect the ruling would have on the petition challenge process currently used in Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and a few other states. Free and Equal has been a vocal opponent of petition challenges, where any voter can challenge petition signatures. The challenge process is un-democratic and vulnerable to corruption. Many politicians take advantage of these states’ open-signature challenges, using public funds and public employees to knock legitimate candidates off the states’ election ballots.

If the Supreme Court upholds this case and petition signatures are deemed private, the challenge process will become unconstitutional. This deep-pocket, political establishment tool that hinders voter choice and removes fairness and equality from elections will go away.

As Capital University law professor Mark R. Brown eloquently stated in an April 10 Columbus Dispatch article, “Motivated opponents of emerging ideas and contentious candidacies can use public records for nefarious political ends.” In states with disclosure laws, public records are already being used for nefarious political ends!

People need to feel comfortable signing petitions based on their beliefs, without fear of harassment and discrimination. If the Supreme Court upholds Doe vs. Reed, voters in Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and other petition-challenge states will have more rights, more freedom, and free and fair elections.

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