There was a story in San Francisco earlier this month about a defense attorney who had seven gang members stand up in court and stare at a witness who was testifying against one of their buddies in a murder case.

A similar type of intimidation is the only reason for taking away the privacy protection that now exists for voters who sign an initiative or referendum petition. It isn’t an expansion of open government, but rather a dangerous attack on the people’s right to have a direct say in their government.

Earlier this week, my friend Joe Mathews argued in this space that the names, home addresses and phone numbers of people who sign an initiative petition should be made available to anyone interested, just as it is with voter registration cards and campaign finance information.

“Signing a petition is not like voting in an election,’’ he said. “It is in every way a public act.”

But signing an initiative or referendum petition is perhaps an even more important than that anonymous vote, since without enough signatures on those petitions, voters would never get a chance to cast a ballot on that issue.

At issue is a Washington state case where gay-rights activists sought to obtain the identity of voters who signed a referendum petition that could revoke a law granting registered domestic partners the same rights as married couples.

They planned to put names and personal information of the people who signed the petition up on the Internet. Backers of the referendum complained that would open the signers up to harassment. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8-to-1 to uphold the state’s existing ban on releasing the signatures, at least until the court decides whether to take up the case.

While the gay-rights groups deny there is any intimidation involved, they acknowledge that making the names public will put pressure on people thinking about signing things like Washington’s Referendum 72 or initiatives like California’s Prop. 8 ban on same-sex marriage.

“Citizens approach petitions more thoughtfully once they realize it is a public document,” said Aaron Toleos, co-director of, the national group pushing for making initiative signatures public.

To translate that into more direct political talk, the hope is that people will be less willing to sign a petition when they know it could lead to consequences, such as pickets in front of their homes or businesses.

While open government absolutists argue that the public’s business should be conducted in public, initiative petitions are far from the biggest problem (See Big 5, closed door discussions by).

As for suggestions that the petitions should be treated the same as campaign finance information, they are two very different animals.

By making campaign contributions a public record, voters get a chance to see where the money is coming from in election campaigns, information that can help them decide what candidate or ballot measure to support or oppose.

But any effect initiative signatures have ends when the Secretary of State finishes counting and verifying them. If a petition makes the ballot, both sides start with zero votes. But if a petition doesn’t make the ballot because potential signers have been scared away, that’s not good for democracy.

It’s easy for gay-rights supporters to talk about how making initiative petitions public would help them politically, but any new public record rule would cover all campaigns.

What about the teacher at a Catholic school who won’t sign an abortion rights petition because she knows she could be fired if her name became public? Or the secretary at an oil company who doesn’t want his name on an initiative to boost energy taxes? Or the union member who doesn’t want his dues used for political contributions without his consent, but won’t put his signature on a measure that says just that?

We’re not talking small numbers here. It takes 694,354 valid signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the California ballot, which means collecting 1 million or more.

If the prospect of intimidation keeps even one measure off the ballot, that’s too many in a democracy. The worst thing that can happen if people are free to sign any initiative without fear of reprisals is that a measure makes the ballot so the people can decide on it in an election. And that’s not a bad thing.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.