Petition fraud is a serious and ongoing problem in many states, and anti-equality forces have been known to use unethical or illegal methods of filling up their petitions.  Methods range from the simple copying of names and addresses from phone books or other petitions, to bait & switch, where the signature gatherer misrepresents the intent of the referendum to a trusting voter.

In an effort to keep electoral politics transparent and honest, Washington’s Secretary of State makes the names of people who sign referendum or initiative petitions part of the public record if the petition gets certified.  Similarly, the Washington Public Disclosure Commission posts the names of donors to PACs, candidates and political campaigns.  

Today Brian Murphy announced the formation of WhoSigned.org.

WhoSigned.org, a grassroots organization of Washington State residents, announced today that it would make the names of Referendum 71 petitioners looking to overturn the expanded domestic partnership law accessible online.

While Murphy’s stated goal is to facilitate meaningful discussion between petition signers and those affected by the petition’s goal, his online database will serendipitously perform a different service: providing voters with a simple means of determining whether they are victims of petition fraud.  This is vital in a state where the Secretary of State only checks 3% of signatures for authenticity.  Recently in Massachusetts, thousands of people, including a city councilor and a television sports director, had their names fraudulently placed on anti-equality petitions.Here is an excellent news report on how easy and prevalent petition fraud is.

Some people are queasy at the thought of the names of petition signers being part of the public record.  It is important to remember that with referenda and initiatives, the voters are temporarily assuming the duty of legislators.  Real legislators publicly co-sponsor bills, declare to constituents their position on bills and publicly debate bills in the legislative chamber.  If voters are going to assume the mantle of legislator, they assume the responsibility of going on public record prior to the vote if they support a particular referendum.  If you wouldn’t let legislators negotiate legislation in secret, you can’t be too up in arms when citizen legislators are required to act transparently.  As Gay Curmudgeon says

When a voter signs an Initiative or Referendum petition they are undertaking an act of public advocacy and have no reasonable expectation of privacy.   If that same Initiative or Referendum gets on the ballot, the voters decision is protected by the secret ballot…

If [the names of petition signers were hidden] it would allow a majority of Washington voters to advocate against minorities in secret and with no transparency to prevent abuse of the initiative and referendum process.  As history attests, it has always been easier for good people to permit evil in their name when they can do so in secret.

Still, there is no denying that few voters have thought this through, and therefore may see WhoSigned.org as an affront.  No surprise then to read this well-considered response from Equal Rights Washington in the Seattle PI

Though WhoSigned.org links to the Decline to Sign 71 campaign, it has no connection to that larger effort, according to Josh Friedes of Equal Rights Washington.

In fact, Decline to Sign advocates asked creator Brian Murphy not to go ahead with it, Friedes said.

Now that he has, Friedes says he is concerned it might hurt the positive tone many of the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists are hoping to set as they fight to defend the domestic partner law.

“We don’t question their sincerity. We question whether or not this really achieves the common goal of protecting Washington families,” Friedes said.

Friedes said the general campaign is focused on getting people to talk about why they shouldn’t sign Referendum 71, and will not in any way put those who disagree on the defensive, as WhoSigned.org might do.

“We hope people will understand this Web site does not represent the campaign which has the widest spectrum,” he said.

The Decline to Sign campaign has gathered more than 25,000 pledges not to sign Referendum 71, Friedes said.

I tend to agree with Friedes in that it is more fruitful to talk positively to uncommitted voters than to potentially put petition signers on the defensive.  But what’s done is done, and there is a silver lining.  If petitioners gather enough signatures to qualify Referendum 71 for the ballot, the Secretary of State will release the signers’ names to the public and WhoSigned.org will prove useful in helping detect petition fraud by putting a searchable database online.  Everyone wins when democracy happens in the light of day.