Gazette investigation: Most petitions public record

Supreme Court: Release does not violate free speech right

March 31, 2014 | 9:07 pm

Petition signers across the country have seen their names and other information posted online in recent years as advocacy groups push for accountability in hot-button issues, such as same-sex marriage.

A Massachusetts group called Know Thy Neighbor in 2005 published more than 148,000 names of Massachusetts residents who signed a petition to ban same-sex marriage.

Offshoot groups have since published databases of petition signers in Florida, Arkansas, Oregon and Washington state.

“KnowThyNeighbor.org believes that citizens who sponsor an amendment to take people’s rights should never be allowed to do so under the cover of darkness,” according to the group’s website.

The group says the online databases reduce fraud because people can report errors from the petitions.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2010 that a Washington state public records request seeking petition signatures and associated information, such as addresses, did not violate the signers’ freedom of speech.

Opponents of the release said the signers would be harassed and threatened if their names and addresses became public.

The Omaha World-Herald in December 2010 published the names of nearly 29,000 valid signatures on a petition to recall Mayor Jim Suttle. Community reaction ranged from praise for accessibility of information to serious concern from people who didn’t know petitions were public.

Petitions are public record in Iowa. Linn County Auditor Joel Miller published the Cedar Rapids Extended Sales Tax group’s petition online at http://gis.linncounty.org/data/elections/special/03062012/signatures.pdf.

The 680 pages of scribbled signatures show the challenges of publishing a petition database. Some software purports to translate handwriting into digital documents, but manual data entry is still used in many cases.

The Gazette compiled a database of about 4,700 signatures by deciphering names based on signatures and printed names. The newspaper also used county and city assessor records to match names with poorly written ones on the petition.

About 500 names had incomplete or illegible information.

Increasing the practice of publishing petition signers’ names may make it harder to gather the necessary number of signatures for special elections, said Janine Parry, a political-science professor at the University of Arkansas.

However, people gathering signatures on petitions should know the laws in their states and make signers aware that their names could be published, she said.

“No longer is it just abstract accountability,” Parry said.

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