When citizens of Washington state sign a ballot-measure petition they are essentially asking for an initiative or referendum to be put before a vote of the people.
Those who sign petitions are taking a public stand. And the names and addresses of those who sign have long been public record.
Yet, most folks who leave their John Hancock on petitions probably don't consider their signature part of a public record. Frankly, most people don't give the act of signing much thought one way or another. Often they just sign because it seems easier than the confrontation that goes with telling the signature gatherer no.
But when the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed names of signers are indeed public, a few eyes were opened.
Some people are now considering looking into having their signatures removed from petitions.
David Ammons, communications director for the Secretary of State's Office, said any I-want-to-take-back-my-signature requests are a no go.
"That may seem like an easy or logical request to comply with, but we do not remove signatures once they have been submitted by the sponsor. Hundreds of thousands of signatures on 20,000 petition sheets are being submitted for each of at least six initiatives this year, and verification is a daunting task, particularly if a full 100 percent check is required," Ammons said.
Locating the signatures would be tougher than looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. It's more like, as Tom Hanks' character quipped in "Saving Private Ryan," looking for a needle in a stack of needles.
The fact is that although the names of those who sign petitions have been public, it was rare anybody asked to see those names. The only reason this is an issue now is a few gay-rights supporters started playing political hard ball and threatened to publish the names of those seeking to overturn a law authorizing domestic partnership between gay couples.
A legal challenge was made seeking to keep the names of petition signers secret. The court ruled the names are generally public record.
"Running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage," Justice Antonin Scalia said during oral arguments. "The First Amendment offers no protection against criticism or even nasty phone calls."
Since it's clear those who sign are taking a public stand, those who opt to sign petitions better know what they are signing. The best way to determine that is to actually read the initiative (or at least the brief summary) and ask questions.
Those who believe the proposal before them would make a good law should sign the petition. Conversely, those feel it would make a lousy law should withhold their signatures.
Voters are putting their names -- and their reputations -- on petitions and they should be picky about the proposals they support.