Proposal to make petition signatures confidential raises questions over privacy, transparency
Supporters of various initiatives are out in full force collecting signatures with the purpose of getting on next year’s ballot. Those signatures become part of the public record, and anyone can access these lists. A Republican senator from Fairbanks wants that to change, but some activists are worried his proposal could have unintended consequences.
The legislative session is months away. But already, Sen. Pete Kelly’s office is drafting a bill that would make the signatures collected during the initiative process confidential. He sees it as a matter of urgency.
“We’re just kind of living in an odd environment right now where I believe people are pretty nervous about what happens to their names or how they get on lists. I don’t think the state should be able to sell those names, and those lists should be fairly private.”
Right now, there are a lot of petitions floating about. There’s one to legalize marijuana, and another to recall Anchorage Republican Lindsey Holmes from the legislature for switching parties. There are also propositions that would repeal a tax cut for oil companies, and make it harder to develop Pebble Mine, both issues where Kelly has taken a pro-development stance.
His office is now warning Alaskans that they should be “very concerned about giving their names to strangers with clip boards.” Kelly thinks his announcement is timely because of the number of petitions currently circulating and because discussion about data-sharing is now happening at a national level. The motivation came:
“Mostly just from conversations about the NSA thing, and then somebody mentioned to me that the initiative [signers'] names are sold. And those two events just kind of crossed in my mind, and I thought, ‘Well, that isn’t a very good idea.’”
But some are wondering if there might be other reasons for bringing up this proposal now, so far ahead of the legislative session. Pat Lavin is one of the organizers of the referendum to repeal the oil tax cut. He describes the announcement as a sort of “black helicopter” message that could make it harder to gather the 30,000-signatures needed to get on the ballot.
“I hear a message designed to make people think twice about signing a petition.”
Kelly’s office says that’s not their intent. According to his staff, they’re not trying to discourage anyone from signing any petition — they just want people to know that their names are available upon request.
Meanwhile, government transparency advocates have some reservations about the actual substance of the proposal.
“We think this legislation is not a great idea,” says Joshua Decker with the ACLU of Alaska.
Decker gets why people might bristle at the idea of political operatives or even telemarketers buying their names and addresses. But he says the consequences of making these signatures confidential would be even more serious: If there isn’t open access to these lists, there’s no way for the public to verify if a petition got the necessary signatures to appear on the ballot. Decker also says that the concern that some people aren’t having their voice heard because they’re worried about privacy is overblown.
“We as an organization are not aware of anyone who has said, ‘But for the fact that my signature would be confidential, I am not going to sign on this particular ballot initiative.’”
Kelly’s staff say they’re open to hearing about any concerns about transparency or how their legislation would affect signature gatherers as they’re drafting the bill. They have six months until they introduce it formally in January.