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SCOTUS Rules Petiton Signatures Are Public Record 780

Reader SheeEttin reminds us that back in October, the Supreme Court accepted a case testing whether or not petition signers' names could be kept anonymous. (The premise was that the act of signing a petition is covered by free speech, and thus signers are entitled to anonymity, especially to protect them from harassment.) Now the Court has issued its ruling: signatures are part of the public record. "By a strong majority Thursday, the Supreme Court issued a setback for opponents of gay marriage who wanted to keep their identities secret. The justices favored transparency over privacy in a case testing whether signing a petition is a public act. The case began with a bill that the Washington state legislature passed in 2009, expanding the state's domestic partnership law. The new referendum was known as 'everything but marriage' for the enhanced rights it gave same-sex couples. People who opposed the bill gathered 120,000 signatures for a ballot measure asking voters to repeal it. That measure eventually reached Washington voters, who upheld 'everything but marriage.' Those who signed the repeal petition feared that they would be harassed if their names became public, so they went to court challenging Washington's Public Records Act. They argued that signing a petition is speech that is protected from disclosure. But in Thursday's 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court disagreed. 'Such disclosure does not, as a general matter, violate the first amendment,' Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court."
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SCOTUS Rules Petiton Signatures Are Public Record

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  • by Jonathan C. Patschke ( 8016 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @12:36PM (#32692192) Homepage

    Okay, so petition signatures are public record? How about henceforth Congress is only permitted to pass legislation by roll call?

    Government of the who by the huh for the what-now?

  • by stanlyb ( 1839382 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @12:37PM (#32692226)
    I have a question then. Since the VOTE is a public action too, does this ruling means that voting signatures should be public too? And don't get me wrong, but i really want to know who voted for who....
  • Re:Well then, (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nj_peeps ( 1780942 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @12:39PM (#32692278) Journal
    No, Voting should remain as it is, you have to prove your ID and sign-in to vote, so that no one person can vote twice (their vote and yours). But who you vote for should not be a matter of public record. Petitions while related to voting do not carry the same weight as a vote, and names need to be verified to show that X number of people did in fact sign the petition.
  • by characterZer0 ( 138196 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @12:43PM (#32692374)

    Secret ballot is how we impose our morals upon others anonymously.

    The issue with petitions it that it would be prohibitively expensive to create a system to submit petitions for anonymous votes exactly one time per eligible voter. It is not anonymous because it cannot be validated if it is.

    Please take your "they are imposing their morals" rhetoric somewhere else.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 25, 2010 @12:53PM (#32692562)

    Whats disgusting is the way some people who signed the Prop 8 petition in CA were treated afterward - loosing jobs, having their homes and cars vandalized, death threats even.

    I for one, can no longer sign petitions of any kind. There is always a whacko for the opposing side no matter what the topic is.

    see, it is having a 'chilling effect' already...

  • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @12:56PM (#32692626) Homepage
    It turned out that the scientists whose names were on the petition disagreed with the petition. (It was against global warming.)

    Voting has the identity verified, that how they get away with anonymity. As petitions do not and can not be verified by a trusted source, they need to be public.

  • by Alex Belits ( 437 ) * on Friday June 25, 2010 @12:56PM (#32692638) Homepage

    Voting is government-originated action that determines the opinion of the public on a particular subject or candidate for public office. It is ordinary, as the voting is a mandatory (and usually the only) way to perform some functions of the political system. There are whole systems (sometimes quite complex and only viable if implemented at the scale of the whole society) to ensure that votes can be counted without revealing individual voters' choices.

    Petition is an extraordinary action, it is originated by the members of the public to convince the government to change its actions and policies -- often by overriding the decisions made by elected officials or voting. Since petitions are usually signed by a tiny percentage of the population, there is more burden on petitioners to convince the government that their ideas are reasonable and shared by a somewhat noticeable number of people.

  • Re:Well then, (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @01:05PM (#32692798) Homepage

    Which, incidentally, can be a problem with petition drives too. Part of the verification process for a petition can involve contacting signatories and asking them why they signed - if the answer is "Some guy paid me 5 bucks" or "What petition?", smell a rat.

  • by dave562 ( 969951 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @01:14PM (#32692952) Journal

    Does that purpose outweigh the very real possibility of harassment?

    Harassment builds character. As other people have stated, if a person feels strongly enough to go on the record in support of something, they should do so knowing that at some point they may have to actually stand up for their beliefs. As a country we seem to spend a lot of time protecting ourselves from each other. We constantly turn to third parties, rather than dealing directly with each other. At some point, everyone has to drum up the courage to look another human being in the eye and say, "You can take your ignorance and go fuck yourself."

    The whole point of petitions and voting and change revolves around standing up for yourself or others. It involves doing what you believe in. Standing up for a belief often times bring grief, especially when that belief lies far enough outside of the mainstream. Change often times hurt. The more extreme the change, the more likely there will be negative reprocussions.

    In response to your questions about what good public disclosure serves, it serves the purpose of shining light on a cause. It shows the rest of society just how many people are willing to stand up for their beliefs. As Ghandi said, "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. THEN THEY FIGHT YOU. Then you win." There are plenty of laws on the books to deal with harassment. Harassment may be effective for limited times in certain circumstances. In the long run, the harassers will get theirs.

    Harassment sucks. I'm not trying to minimize that fact. As a human being, you can't hide behind anonyminity. You have to face your harassers and overcome them. Often times the best way to do it involves simply ignoring them. "Sticks and stones..." and all that. Communities form for reasons. A sad fact of human beings seems to be that we will never always get along with everyone else. There will always be division and strife. Band together with those who are of like mind.

  • by MobileTatsu-NJG ( 946591 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @01:15PM (#32692958)

    How does not making these signatures part of the public record prevent the elections office from verifying them?

    Are they going to verify that they exist, or that they signed them? I'm just thinking it'd give people a chance to say "I didn't sign this!" I'm going to be honest here, I watch too much Simpsons. I'm imagining dead people 'signing' these petitions.

  • by ElectricTurtle ( 1171201 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @01:23PM (#32693102)
    I agree wholeheartedly. FOIA requests shouldn't even be necessary. There are so many government data sets--statistics, budgets, reports-- that could be and should be released to the public automatically online, but it's important to the civil servants and the elected officials both to do as much business in dark alleys as possible. Who knows what the public might demand if the information were available to hold governments at all levels accountable?
  • by The Breeze ( 140484 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @01:25PM (#32693136) Homepage

    Actually, the LOGS of who voted - not what they voted for - ARE public record. I can tell which elections you voted in; it's public record that you voted - just not who you voted FOR.

    A vote is a decision. A petition signature is a public, open attempt to submit an issue to the voters.

    Petition signatures need to be public. The number one electoral fraud in this country is falsification of petiition signatures. Hotly contested races will hire outside firms to verify petition signatures on a routine basis, and this is necessary in any adversarial system.

    Usually only a small number - 1-5% of registered voters - is required to put a measure or candidate on the ballot, which then leads to a secret vote.

    Democracy has risks. If there's any issue that can't muster between one and five percent of people willing to take a public stand on an issue than we're already doomed.

    Also, signing a petition is NOT necessarily an endorsement of an issue or candidate. It is merely a declaration that a person feels an issue is worthy of a vote. It usually - but not always - indicates a signer supports an issue. I have signed petitions for candidates who I did not support simply because the candidate I DID support was already on the ballot but I thought the opposing candidate had a right to be heard.

  • by ElectricTurtle ( 1171201 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @01:43PM (#32693484)
    Seems deliciously ironic too that homophobic bigots would lose their jobs for their support of rescinding the civil equality of homosexuals when no doubt they would have defended the right of employers to terminate the jobs of gay employees as remains legal in many states. What's good for the goose... ha ha!

    Though to be unequivocative about it, I do agree and affirm that employers should have the final say in who they employ and who they don't, regardless of any PC nonsense about diversity. The reality of diversity is, while there are some people who might deny employment to various 'protected classes', there are others who would preferentially hire the same. It's just like the stupid smoking bans. The nature of a diverse market naturally creates some businesses that are exclusively non-smoking because some people want that, and conversely creates some businesses that are tolerant to the point of encouraging smoking, but it's insanely conceited for people to demand conformity to their comfort at the expense of others when they could just go somewhere else.
  • by iamhigh ( 1252742 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @01:46PM (#32693536)

    Those who sued to get the names of the people who signed the petition did so so that they could harrass the more prominent people who signed it.

    You use the word "harrass", but I wonder if you didn't actually mean "shame". There is a big difference between harrassment and calling someone out for a hateful attitude towards a minority with a different lifestyle that in reality has little affect on any straight person. I wonder if you could consider gay marriage bans a "harrassment" of gays?

  • Dual Edges (Score:5, Interesting)

    by WED Fan ( 911325 ) <> on Friday June 25, 2010 @01:50PM (#32693578) Homepage Journal

    I live in the Seattle area. Among my hobbies and avocations are community theater and gay rights, even though I am straight. I am for same sex marriage (actually, I'm for getting government getting out of the business of licensing marriage and getting religion out of the business of defining it), I've performed them, gratis. However, I have a hard time with this. The more vocal of the gay community were trying to bully state voters who were opposed to a bill that would provide almost all the benefits of marriage to gay couples.

    I routinely sign petitions that, even if I disagree with the premise, I believe deserves a fair airing in public. As a result of this action, I had a minor break with some of my gay friends who were very angry and wanted the names of all the signers.

  • by MozeeToby ( 1163751 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @02:01PM (#32693766)

    No, hating a person who is Jewish because of their behavior is fine. Hating all Jews because of their perceived behavior and opinions is racism. You don't see the difference there? In the first one, it is a person's own behavior that is causing others to hate them; in the second one, it is the behavior of others that causes the hatred.

    Apparently you'd like to re-frame your statement to compare their 'Bigots live here' to '[X believer] lives here'. There's still a huge difference. There's lots of religious people who support gay marriage. There's presumably people who are against gay marriage who aren't believers (though probably not many). Just because an opinion is based on religious reasoning doesn't put that opinion above disdain from everyone else.

  • None of that matters. The fact is, the signatures on any petition should be made available for public scrutiny and so they can be verified. I was part of a campaign that stopped a petition in my home state when we caught them doing a lot of underhanded things that the local bureaucrats turned a blind eye too.

    And, on the reverse end, I had a petition I was an active member of have the same thing happen to it (we won though because we weren't dirty) but it's nice when your opposite looks at it and has to concede to the fact that you did indeed get enough legitimate signatures.

    I have to be honest, as someone who has worked as a political activist and had everything from death threats to vandalism occur, I don't want to work with people who aren't willing to do the same. If a particular belief isn't worth taking grief from cowards, it's not that important to you. Stand up for what you believe or sit down, shut up and play the part of a domesticated animal. People who only get involved when it's safe are just as cowardly as the haters and will ultimately get their just deserts.

  • by ElectricTurtle ( 1171201 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @02:25PM (#32694154)
    I would be interested in sources that support your claims. The history as I understand it was that the majority of people in the colonies at the time were sympathetic to independence, with less than a fifth being loyalists, and less than that being truly neutral. The reason that more people didn't volunteer for the Continental Army was simply that the pay and provisioning was meager and sporadic, and life in the colonies was for most tenuous and near subsistence. People largely could not afford to abandon their work and their families to go off and harry the British. I would not call that cowardice of any color.
  • by Myopic ( 18616 ) on Friday June 25, 2010 @04:42PM (#32696064)

    Good question.

    Market theory is premised on perfect knowledge, perfect competition, and rational deciders. As it turns out, all of those premises are wrong, more or less. (They are each somewhat true, but less so than untrue. That's why reality somewhat matches the theory, but less so than not.)

    Imperfect knowledge: If you want to go to a bar, but you only know about smokey bars (maybe because there are only smokey bars), then you will sigh and go to a smokey bar. You have no choice.

    Imperfect competition: Maybe there is a non-smokey bar, but other qualities of a bar make it preferable to you. So you sigh and go to the bar which you otherwise prefer, despite the smoke.

    Irrational decision: Maybe you never really thought about bars being smokey, like you just assume they all have smoke and that's the price of admission. The thought literally never occurred to you to choose a non-smokey bar.

    My guess is that it is the first of those: almost all bars were smokey, so there was hardly any choice to be made. People wanted to go to a drinking establishment, and that meant going to a smokey bar.

    I relate this to food labeling. Americans like their food labels, so why did it take legislation to get them? Why didn't the market provide food labels? Think about it: if you walked into a grocery store and none of the food was labeled, would you walk out and starve to death? No, you would just buy the available food. That's a failure of market theory -- basically because market theory isn't very good at matching reality.

In less than a century, computers will be making substantial progress on ... the overriding problem of war and peace. -- James Slagle