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Secret Ballots and Certain Named and Unnamed Citizen-Legislators

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Doe v. Reed, 561 U.S. ___ (2010), a case about Washington’s Public Records Act, which mandates the public availability for inspection and copying of petitions. In something of a follow-on to the recent Citizens United decision, see supra here, an eight-justice majority ruled that, generally speaking there is no constitutional right against the public disclosure by a state government of the identities of petition signatories. See here and here. (Justice Clarence Thomas dissented in both cases, opposing disclosure.)

The case arose after a group called Protect Marriage Washington (PMW), which was organizing against a 2009 state law that expanded rights of same-sex couples, argued that the public disclosure of the names of signatories to  the petition that forced a referendum vote on the act would violate their First Amendment rights. PMW’s campaign manager, Larry Stickney, feared threats similar to those against Californian supporters of Proposition 8. Mark Walsh, On the Campaign Trail: Court Weighs Arguments for Anonymity on Public Petitions, ABA Journal, June 2010, at 20. Stickney said he received threatening telephone calls and emails and moved his family to an interior bedroom in his house due to fear of harm. Id. Two websites pledged to publish the names and addresses of signatories, and supporters of the challenged law sent public records requests to PMW with the same goal. Id.

Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion allowed that there may be some situations in which it is necessary to protect signatories’ anonymity and sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether this case merits exceptional treatment.

Secret-ballot voting is one of the most important electoral traditions in this country. Suffrage expansion along race, gender, and age lines was important, but to secure the vote truly and meaningfully for any eligible voter must be to require voting by secret ballot. Although outside influences of the lawful (the valued point of political campaigns, after all, is to educate and persuade voters) and unlawful (e.g., “political machines”) variety, secret ballots help ensure that votes cast are the voter’s own and curb the force of inappropriate influences. Voter intimidation through formal and informal means erodes the right to vote, and voters should not have to fear any mode of external influence, lawful or unlawful, formal or informal. Should one take the stance, perhaps extreme, to refuse to disclose one’s ballot decisions to others, even including family and friends, one would be upholding firmly the values behind the principle of secret-ballot voting.

Legislators, our representatives in government, cast two types of votes, however. As citizens, they cast the ordinary sort of votes discussed in the previous paragraph, and they should never be called to disclose or explain these votes while campaigning or serving in office. As legislators representing citizens in the governance of our democratic republic, their votes on bills and other measures in the legislature are not secret. In service of democratic ends, these votes are appropriate for public evaluation.

The plaintiffs in Reed, in signing the petition to place Referendum 71 on the ballot, appear to be more like citizens acting as legislators than citizens casting personal votes for candidates or other ballot measures. A referendum is a wresting back of the lawmaking power from the institution of elected representatives to the public. When members of the public stand in the shoes of legislators, it is appropriate that they face similar scrutiny.

While this rationale may be conceptually sensible, referendum petition signatories do not share many of the characteristics that make it important, as matters of representative democracy, that legislators’ legislative votes are public. Furthermore, the concerns about external intimidation and influence may be just as valid in petition signing as in voting, even if the stakes are lower. It may be legally satisfying (or at least, workable) to say that the state provides the referendum avenue and therefore is allowed to reasonably regulate it by requiring identity disclosure to combat fraud. Whether it is theoretically satisfying, from a position of considering a governing apparatus and its relationship to the governed is a separate question.

  1. jjm
    July 2, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    You point to this, but the characteristic most relevantly not shared by referendum petition signatories and legislators is the status of ‘elected’ official. The reason legislators’ votes should be made public is to facilitate their electoral accountability to a constituency that might wish them to vote otherwise.

  2. jim
    September 10, 2010 at 11:49 am

    this is awesome man

  1. July 6, 2010 at 3:18 am

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