Ewan Watt is a political consultant based in St Paul, Minnesota. Ewan spent three years in London working for Weber Shandwick Public Affairs and has had stints at the Republican National Committee and the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC. He is a Contributing Editor to YPNation, a blog and leadership network for young professionals in the United States where he covers issues as varied as health care reform, fiscal imbalances and foreign and defence policy.
Today, voters go to the polls in Gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, in the highly contentious special election for New York's 23rd Congressional district and in various municipal elections. Furthermore, though, voters in Washington State go to the ballot box on an issue that may have ramifications across the entire country.
According to the New York Times,
"voters in Washington State will decide whether to extend to registered domestic partners the same rights married couples have, short of marriage. But the campaign over the referendum, placed on the ballot by opponents of same-sex marriage, has been overshadowed by one issue: whether the individual names of the petitioners should be made public, and ultimately, circulated on the Web."
The proposal’s supporters - the ominously named KnowThyNeighbor.org - claim that this will help mitigate growing fears of voter fraud, which given the 2006 debacle, is a major problem in the state. But in reality, it's an attempt to force "uncomfortable" conversations with their opponents, the 138,000 names and addresses of each and every individual that signed a petition in opposition to Referendum 71, a measure already passed by the state legislature to expand legal protection to same sex couples.
It's not Referendum 71 that has caused the furore per se, but the systematic attempts by 71's proponents to publicize what Stephen Colbert so aptly described as their "sexual orientation orientation". Is it legal?
71's proponents claim that Washington state's Public Disclosure Act already provides a legal basis for disclosing the personal details of each of the petitioners. After all, the names and address of each individual that votes in an election is already public record - so too are the details of state law enforcement. Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed claims that the list has to be made public in the name of "transparency" as Washingtonians "expect to know who is contributing for and against ballot measures that affect their lives." According to the PDA, signing a referendum is a form of voting and therefore not technically private.
In opposition, The Family PAC claim they already have Supreme Court precedent on their side, citing the 1958 case NAACP v Alabama whereby the latter attempted to force the former to release the records of their membership. Citing the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court sided with the NAACP claiming "Immunity from state scrutiny of petitioner's membership lists is here so related to the right of petitioner's members to pursue their lawful private interests privately and to associate freely with others."
The Supreme Court has already blocked attempts to publish these 138,000 names, but the fight is far from over. Given that the state already possesses the names and records of each voter, this state-backed initiative has nothing to do with transparency, but is an attempt to shame people from political participation - just look at what happened to those who backed California's Proposition 8 last year. It is an attempt to intimidate voters - not only from participating in referenda, but even from the simple act of signing a petition.
In Washington, the adage that "Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote" now seems somewhat inaccurate. Even if you do vote, the bad officials appear to be going out of their way to prevent good citizens from participating in the first place.
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