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Posting recall signatures stirs controversy

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Steven Walters
February 6, 2012

Question of the week: If you were one of the 1 million-plus signers of petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker, did you expect that your name and address would be posted on the Internet—for family members, your boss, neighbors, in-laws, outlaws and ex-spouses to see?


You may have decided to sign that petition without thinking of the public-record consequences. But your names and addresses were posted on the website of the Government Accountability Board last Tuesday.


Both Atty. Gen. J.B. Van Hollen and GAB Director Kevin Kennedy said a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling and Wisconsin’s Open Records Law required that all information on petitions for the six pending recalls be made public.


The GAB must decide whether enough signatures were filed to force recall elections for governor, lieutenant governor and four Republican state senators.


But, as of late last week, the thousands of pages of handwritten names posted by the GAB were not “searchable,” so no one could look for you by typing in a name, street address, hometown, date or the name of the petition “circulator” who had to affirm that they watched you sign it.


One legislative leader, Republican Rep. Robin Vos, wants the GAB to make that database searchable. Vos predicted that, if the state agency doesn’t do so, someone else already has—or will soon.


State officials disagree on whether recall petition signers knew—or should have known—that their names would be made public and, ultimately, on the Internet.


Points to ponder:


n Legal language on the recall petitions did not specifically say signing it makes your name and address a public record.


n Circulators of those recall petitions had no legal duty or obligation to make potential signers aware that their names would be public records.


n Some Wisconsin residents who refused to sign the petitions asked that all names be made public so they can prove that they did not sign, Kennedy noted.


n The list of names of recall-Walker petition signers has tremendous value for political parties, special-interest groups and, potentially, private businesses selling products or services. Anyone can pay the GAB $40 for four CDs listing all signers of recall-Walker petitions.


Ed Garvey, the Democratic candidate for governor in 1998, told Wisconsin Public Radio last week that the Democrat who runs against Walker in the likely recall election starts out with “1 million votes”—the number of petition signers.


In the November 2010 election for governor, Walker got 1,128,941 votes; the Democratic candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, got 1,004,303 votes.


“If you’re a Democrat, yeah, you probably would want to see that list,” added Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach.


But Erpenbach questioned whether the addresses, which he called “personally identifiable information,” of petition signers should also be listed on the Internet.


“Does a ‘public record’ mean that everything has to go on the Internet?” said Erpenbach. “That’s not necessarily the case.”


Republicans will also use the list of recall-Walker petitioners in many ways.


They are already sending “did you know” postcards that ask petition signers whether they know their names are on the petitions, and whom to contact if they did not sign them.


Democratic Assembly Leader Peter Barca said those postcards intimidate or threaten those who signed the petitions. But Vos said the postcards can identify potential forged names.


The list of petition signers will also help Republicans run more efficient get-out-the-vote efforts. The list tells Republicans whom to not waste money on with robocalls, direct mail and door-to-door—called “knock and drop”—personal contacts.


Kennedy last week said requests to have their names redacted from the public list of petition signers came from those who feared “harassment and threats” from Walker supporters, those who fear identity theft, and stalking and domestic abuse victims afraid of having their addresses made public.


Kennedy does not think most petition signers thought about whether their names and addresses would be public records and end up on the Internet.


Signing the petition was a “profile in courage” moment for some, Kennedy said.


“When people take public political stands, that’s essentially what they are doing,” Kennedy explained. “What we’ve been forcing is a lot of dialogue on this issue—Sometimes, unfortunately, that dialogue gets ugly.”


Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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