Names of those who sign petitions should be released

The people's business must be done out in the open.

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When someone signs a petition requesting an issue be put on the ballot it must be verified the signer is legally registered to vote. That's the law - and it's a good one.

And since the gathering of names on petitions is a public process, it would seem petitions become a public document under state Public Records Act when they are submitted to the Secretary of State's Office for verification. Well, up until recently that was how the law was interpreted and accepted.

But the view changed for some in Washington state last year when some gay rights supporters started playing political hard ball.

The Legislature in 2009 approved the Domestic Partner Expansion Bill, which gives same-sex couples the same rights and benefits as married couples.

This spurred a petition drive to put a measure on the ballot - Referendum 71 - to overturn the expansion of gay rights.

Gay rights supporters lashed back, threatening to post on the Internet the names of those who sign the petition to put Referendum 71 on the ballot.

Legal action was then taken to keep the names of those who sign petitions secret on the grounds that making them public abridges free speech through fear and intimidation.

That's a shortsighted stand. It is important to have a clear record of who signs petitions if there is a legal challenge or other questions. Democracy must be conducted in the open.

If someone who signed a petition is physically threatened or harmed there are already laws in place to deal with those despicable actions.

Nevertheless, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court last week. During questioning justices appeared skeptical that those who sign ballot petitions should remain anonymous.

"Running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage," Justice Antonin Scalia said during oral arguments, The Seattle Times reported. "The First Amendment offers no protection against criticism or even nasty phone calls."

Scalia was one of several justices who appeared unpersuaded that signing a ballot petition is political speech deserving the highest degree of protection, according to The Times. The justices seemed to focus on the broad implications of granting blanket exemption to all initiative or referendum petitions from public disclosure.

State Attorney General Rob McKenna argued in favor of releasing the names. Aside from rooting out fraud, making the names public gives voters insight into who is behind proposals. As an example, he said, the release of names could shine light on a company seeking a tax break.

We hope the justices retain their skepticism in crafting a ruling.

The people's business - making laws and establishing government policy - must be done out in the open even when it is being done by the people.

The high court must make it clear our government and political process must always remain open even when some are faced with intimidation or the threat of violence.

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