Ryan Blethen joins the rest of his editorial board in taking issue with the anti-Referendum 71 folks’ “Who Signed?” campaign.
What I, and this page, take issue with is the Web site called whosigned.org. The site will list everyone who signed Referendum 71. On the Web site it says this is being done so voters can make sure the public record is correct.
We all know that is not the case. The real purpose of whosigned.org is intimidation. People who sign petitions should understand that it is public record.
No, we don’t all know that this is not the case, for while intimidation, to some extent, is certainly part of the purpose of the whosigned.org web site, the strategy is a lot more subtle and nuanced than the Times admits (or understands).
Petitions are a public record, in the sense that should R-71 qualify for the ballot, I would have the right to go to the Secretary of State’s office and spend days examining the petitions by hand. But in reality, that’s not very public at all.
Personally, I would love to see petitions for all initiatives and referenda go online, both a computer searchable list of the petitioners, and PDFs of the actual petition sheets. Petitions are not a secret ballot, and were never intended to be. We have the right to petition our government, and our neighbors have the right to know who the petitioners are. Furthermore, with all petitions online and publicly searchable, I have no doubt that a significant amount of heretofore unknown signature fraud will be uncovered by citizen watchdogs.
We constantly hear from Eyman and his cohorts that there is no signature fraud in Washington state, and thus no need for reforms to identify and correct the problem, but really, how would we know when we’ve never looked for it? And honestly, why should we believe that WA is magically immune from signature fraud when it has proven to be endemic in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Kansas, Colorado and every other state with an initiative process?
But Ryan continues…
But just because somebody signs a petition does not mean they support the referendum. People sign referendums for all sorts of reasons. It is not hard to believe that someone who supports marriage equality will sign it because they firmly believe the voters, not the Legislature, should have the final say.
People sign petitions because somebody asks them. That’s the number one reason. I know. I’ve been there, both collecting signatures, and as part of a coordinated “decline to sign” effort.
Watch the professional signature gatherers, particularly the ones collecting signatures on a number of unrelated petitions. They’ll make the case for the most sellable measure—more often than not, with lies—and then after you sign the top page and fill in your address information, they’ll quickly flip another clipboard in front of you and ask you to “please sign this one…” and “this one…” and “this one…” and so on. And more often than not, the signer will. You don’t even always have to fill in the address information on the subsequent petitions, the signature gather will sometimes offer to copy it over for you.
On the other hand, decline to sign campaigns are incredibly effective. Merely shadowing a signature gatherer, politely refuting his misinformation, and asking people not to sign, was enough to motivate most folks to walk away entirely. After a couple hours of such efforts the signature gatherer would sometimes offer to hand over the Eyman petition I was opposing, or dump them in trash, if I would only leave him alone to conduct the rest of his business unencumbered.
Yeah, Ryan’s right, that some people will sign nearly any petition because they believe that everything should come before the people, but that’s a stupid and lazy abrogation of one’s responsibilities as a citizen. It’s supposed to be difficult to get an initiative or referendum on the ballot, lest public policy billow in the fickle winds of public opinion, and thus folks should be encouraged to put a little thought into the issue before blindly signing. (Nobody, but nobody, will read the text of R-71 before signing, I can guarantee you that.) If knowing that one’s signatures will indeed become a public record—that is, a record easily searched by the public—then perhaps more folks would think twice before affixing their names to a petition that calls for taking away rights from a class of citizens?
And that, I believe… a more thoughtful electorate… can only improve our democracy, right?