Appeal filed after judge orders release of anti-gay petitions

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

The ballot fight ended two years ago with a victory for LGBT civil rights advocates. By a 53 percent majority, voters in Washington defeated a 2009 ballot initiative seeking to repeal the state’s domestic partnership law. 

But the dispute continues over whether the public has a right to know the names of the people who put the referendum on the ballot. 

U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle on Oct. 17 upheld Washington’s Public Records Act and ordered the release of the Referendum 71 petitions, the documents that the National Organization for Marriage and Protect Marriage Washington filed with the secretary of state in their quest to repeal the law that grants registered domestic partners some marriage benefits.

Days later, PMW filed an appeal, requiring the state to re-seal the petitions after releasing about 30 copies.

So the issue remains undecided.

NOM and MPW argue that the referendum petitions should not be released because people who signed the documents might be embarrassed or intimidated by opponents on the issue. A similar argument was used by marriage equality opponents to quash a broadcast of the federal trial of the anti-gay Proposition 8 ballot measure in California and to withhold Prop 8 campaign finance documents.

In the Washington case, Doe v. Reed, LGBT civil rights activists joined state officials and open government advocates in advocating the release of the records.

Washington Families Standing Together, the coalition that battled the ballot initiative, argued that the petitions should be released, in part so they could be reviewed to make sure there were sufficient legal signatures to put the question to a vote.

“These groups sponsor measures with an agenda of taking away rights and then sue with exaggerated tales of victimization in an effort to hide from public view and to take away the ability of those who stand up against them to protect themselves and their fellow citizens,” said WAFST chair Anne Levinson.

Levinson called the court’s ruling “a victory for all those who care about ensuring fair and legitimate elections. Had the court agreed that these ballot measure petitions could be kept secret because the referendum’s sponsors were bothered by some who voiced opposition to their point of view, it would have set a terrible precedent for future elections.” 

The judge wrote that PMW asked for an exemption from the public records act based on “a few experiences of what (it) believes constitutes harassment or threats, the majority of which are only connected to R-71 by speculation.” 

Settle said if PMW’s position was correct, then “anyone could prevail under such a standard.”

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed said, “This is a victory for transparency and open disclosure in our state’s referendum and initiative process. Voters of Washington want their government operating in open, transparent and accountable ways, and treating petitions as a public record is in keeping with that desire. When voters sign petitions, they are trying to change state law. We believe that changing state law should be open to public view.”

Almost immediately after receiving Settle’s ruling, the state released the petitions, which contained 138,000 signatures, to the AP and other major media.

PMW spokesman Gary Randall told the AP, “I believe there will certainly be harassment, and I pray to God there isn’t more than that.”

Several days later, after the weekend, PMW appealed Settle’s ruling, forcing the state to suspend the release of additional copies of the petitions.

As of WiG press time, there were no reports of harassment of petition signers.