Wisconsin recall: Petition names go public despite security fears

 

The Wisconsin recall petitions -- consisting of more than 1 million names asking to recall Gov. Scott Walker, the lieutenant governor and four state senators -- have been posted online by state election officials, even though signers raised questions about how the disclosures might affect their personal security.

The decision to make the names public, announced Tuesday, means that anyone will be able to see the petitions. By Wednesday morning, the petitions, which have signers' names and addresses and the date they signed, were already available in nonsearchable, PDF format.

Making public the names and address of private residents makes it easier for opponents to check and perhaps eventually challenge the documents. The staff of the state Government Accountability Board is reviewing the six recall petitions filed Jan. 17 and will announce at some point whether the petitions have the required number of valid signatures. An election would then be scheduled.

The board has also opted to show the review of the petitions, live via webcam.

But releasing the identities of the signers raises the possibility that they'll become targets of annoying and frequent political calls at the least, and of salespeople or online fraud at the worst. The state agency weighed the balance between public and private rights in deciding to post the documents, officials said.

“In the interest of full transparency, the board has always planned to release copies of recall petitions to anyone who requested them, and to post them online,” Kevin Kennedy, director and general counsel, said in a prepared statement.

“However, we recently heard from a number of people who are concerned about their personal safety if their names and addresses are made public. As a result, our staff had to do a thorough analysis under Wisconsin’s Public Records Law. These are serious issues which must be given thorough consideration and addressed in light of the statutes and the responsibilities of the board.”

In Wisconsin, election petitions have always been public records, the agency said. In 2011, state Senate recall petitions were posted online in the interest of promoting transparency.

“Rather than requiring individuals to request copies,” the board is “again publishing the 2012 recall petitions online due to the high public demand to inspect the current recall petitions, the compressed time period for reviewing petitions, and the time-consuming task of burning CDs,” the agency said.

Wisconsin law and a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court involving referendum petitions in the state of Washington were part of the basis for the Wisconsin board decision.

Unlike an elector’s vote, which is private and confidential, the signing of a recall petition is a public process, Kennedy said the staff had determined.

But Kennedy went on to urge Wisconsin residents to be respectful of privacy rights.

“The electoral process is the means our society has chosen to select leaders, establish public policy and hold public officials accountable without resort to intimidation or violence,” Kennedy said. “While individuals with an interest in vetting these petitions have every right to do so, we expect that they will continue to do so in a respectful, lawful manner. All Wisconsin residents ought to agree that we can ensure the rights of individuals to participate in the political process without endangering their safety or giving up their right to personal security.”

Launched by unionists and their allies, a gubernatorial recall vote, if it gets certified, would be the first in Wisconsin’s history. The campaign was begun in response to Republican efforts, led by Walker, to limit collective bargain rights by most public employee unions.

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-- Michael Muskal

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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