Monday, February 22, 2010




Openness in government is almost always a good thing. That’s why there are few more popular laws in California than the 1950s-era Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires almost all meetings of city councils, public district boards, county supervisors and the Legislature to be open to the public, even when they are only casual get-togethers of a few members.

A strong argument can even be made for opening up sessions where boards and city councils discuss legal or personnel matters, meetings that are now closed in virtually every corner of the state. After all, these meetings can involve spending taxpayer dollars as much as any public session about a zoning ordinance or a legislative bill.

But nothing in the Brown Act ever suggested eliminating the secret ballot. Even in a time when huge numbers of voters cast absentee ballots, great pains are taken to keep each voter’s preferences private.

Into this arena last fall came the opponents of the 2008 Proposition 8, which ended the brief practice of allowing same-sex marriage in California.
It wasn’t enough for many gay-rights advocates to have access to lists of every donor of $100 or more to the Proposition 8 campaign – posted on the Web site of the secretary of state’s office. They demanded lists of everyone who signed the petitions that qualified the measure for the ballot.

So far, they have not gotten those names, and it’s probably a good thing.

For signing an initiative petition is not like contributing money toward passage of the same measure. It’s a far more casual act, often done in the rush of a shopping expedition where citizens are likely to be confronted by paid petition circulators who all but demand signatures. These folks often carry multiple petitions, and a voter might not have any idea what he or she has just signed.

The companies hired by initiative advocates to get the petition signatures needed to put a measure on the ballot know this. So, very likely, did the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court when they refused last fall to require Washington state authorities to open lists of petition signers.

The argument is sometimes made that if lists of registered voters are public records, so too should be the names of petition signers. But those are very different matters and comparing them is like comparing apples and bananas. Even if a voter is a registered member of a particular political party, no one can be sure how he or she voted. So there can’t be retaliation targeted at voters just because they’re registered.

Not so for petition signers. Once those lists are made public, the signers would be on record forever as favoring a particular cause. People who donate significantly to political candidates and ballot measures know their names will be made public; petition signers do not.

And make no mistake, there can be significant consequences when activists know which side of an issue a person has taken. When gay marriage advocates learned last year that the director of the Los Angeles Film Festival had contributed $1,500 – a relatively small sum in politics – toward passage of Proposition 8, he was forced to resign. A boycott followed release of the information that the manager of one restaurant had contributed $100 to the same cause.

It can be fairly argued that those two and other donors were fair game, because they knew – or should have known – there would be a public record of their donations.

But there is no such notice when signing a petition. If there were, chances are petition circulators would have a much harder time getting signatures.

Advocates of making petition signer names and addresses public deny any intent to intimidate anyone. But who knows how such information might be used? The potential for misuse is at least as great as with names of campaign donors.

“Citizens approach petitions more thoughtfully once they realize they are signing public documents,” says the co-head of, the national anti-gay marriage group seeking to make petition signatures public.

His statement may be true, but it also implies the possibility of intimidation, suggesting that signatures might not be so forthcoming if voters knew they might be fired or picketed just for scrawling their names.

Plainly, this could lead to fewer ballot propositions going before the voters, something a lot of so-called good-government groups and academics already say they want.

But it would limit both the ideas voters are allowed to consider and the freedom they now feel to back causes they like. Those are both bad possibilities, which makes keeping petition signatures private once they’re submitted almost as important as ensuring the privacy of actual ballots.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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