Voter database tactic creates ill will

Gay-rights advocates have worked diligently to give gays and lesbians rights equal to those of married heterosexual couples in Washington state.

Those equal-rights advocates scored a significant victory in the state Legislature this year with the passage of Senate Bill 5688, which gives gays and lesbians rights equal to married couples on labor, employment and pension issues.

The legislation, billed by some as the “everything but marriage” law, has been challenged by critics with the filing of Referendum 71. If opponents of the law collect 120,577 signatures of registered voters by July 25, the issue will go to voters in November.

While gay-rights advocates have been effective in their strategy to change state law, their efforts might be torpedoed by zealots who have threatened to publish the names and addresses of every person who signs Referendum 71.

It’s intimidation and may well backfire with the electorate.

At a time when gay-rights advocates are scoring significant victories in state legislatures across the country, the harassment tactic is counterproductive. It may well drive otherwise supportive voters into the opposition camp.

Five years ago, there was a shift in attitudes in this country toward civil unions and the rights of homosexual couples. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll found a majority of Americans in support of legalizing civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriage. The April 2004 poll found 54 percent of Americans supportive of civil unions and 42 percent opposed. That was a reversal from a July 2003 poll that found 57 percent opposed to civil unions.

A national poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in April of this year found a similar 57 percent of Americans in support for same-sex civil unions.

Playing on that public sentiment, Washington lawmakers passed SB 5688. It gives same-sex partners and some heterosexual senior couples equal access to laws available to married couples.

Lawmakers spelled out their goal in the introductory language of the new law: “It is the intent of the Legislature that for all purposes under state law, state registered domestic partners shall be treated the same as married spouses.”

The Senate bill, for example, gives same-sex couples the right to use sick leave to care for a domestic partner and the right to unemployment and insurance benefits. It grants same-sex couples adoption and business succession rights.

After adoption by the Legislature, Larry Stickney of the political-action committee Protect Marriage Washington, filed Referendum 71 in hopes of giving voters an opportunity to overturn the Legislature’s action.

In a blundering move, a Washington-based organization, WhoSigned.org, filed notice that it plans to create a searchable database of names and addresses of people who sign the Ref. 71 petitions.

Director Brian Murphy said the intent was not to harass. He said he wanted voters to be able to find out which of their neighbors have signed the referendum so they can have a conversation about the implications of taking away rights for same-sex couples.

State elections supervisor Nick Handy sees things differently. “A vigorous debate on the issues is always welcome, but efforts to intimidate or repress participation are not,” Handy said. “It just doesn’t feel like the culture we have here in the state of Washington.”

State law says a person is guilty of a gross misdemeanor who “interferes with or attempts to interfere with the right of any voter to sign or not to sign an initiative or referendum petition or with the right to vote for or against an initiative or referendum measure by threats, intimidation, or any other corrupt means or practice.”

Is creating a database of signers with their name and address a threat? Is it intimidation?

Some would argue “yes,” while Murphy says “no.”

It’s a public record when a voter signs an initiative or referenda. That’s one thing, but it’s quite something else to invite confrontation through a searchable database.

The zealots with their hardball tactics have created ill will that threatens to focus voters’ attention on the tactics of the referendum campaign instead of the merit of the new law giving homosexual couples rights equal to those of married couples.

That’s a shame.