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COMMENTARY: Privacy should not trump transparency

By   /   January 31, 2012  /   3 Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

Democracy isn’t always pretty.

Look no further than the nasty business surrounding Wisconsin’s recall campaigns for daily proof.

The Kenosha teacher harassed and ostracized simply because she supports a governor that many of her peers don’t. Or the West Bend man charged with election fraud after allegedly trying to scribble out the names of recall petition signers in a reported burst of anger.

Then there is, to many observers, the general childish behavior of lawmakers so swept up in partisan politics that they’ve forgotten that they’re in Madison to do the people’s business.

There are a lot of people in Wisconsin who will tell you the state’s longstanding recall laws represent the best in democracy, putting the power to change the face of government in the hands of the people.

Plenty of others see an ugly, endless season of recalls, subverting the will of the people, aimed at killing the continuity of governance in the name of party.

These days, Wisconsin recall democracy, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.

But there’s a point that many liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, agree on: Wisconsin’s recall process should be fair and transparent.

While voters on both sides of the aisle may debate the fairness of Wisconsin’s system of recall and the current taste for removing government officials, they had, up until Monday evening, been able to count on an open showing of that system — at least when it came to recall petitions.

The Government Accountability Board, the state election board better known as GAB, decided it would postpone posting the reported 1 million signatures in the recall against Gov. Scott Walker after hearing concerns that making the names public could compromise victims of domestic abuse and stalking, and others.

Earlier Monday, GAB spokesman Reid Magney assured Wisconsin Reporter the signatures would be posted on the board's website by the end of the day, just as the accountability office promised on Friday when it released a scanned copy of the petitions to Walker’s campaign.

The sudden change of heart comes after the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin in December asked the board to hide the names of domestic abuse victims who request their names be kept out of the public eye.

“The GAB is under no obligation to make it easier for stalkers to find their victims by having a searchable database online,” Chris Ahmuty, of the Milwaukee ACLU, told WISN-TV.

The concern is understandable.

No one but perhaps the stalker or the abuser wants to compromise the safety of a victim.

But recalls are different political animals than the standard election system, demanding petition signers stand up and be counted, as GAB Director Kevin Kennedy rightly pointed out in the same WISN story.

“When you’re petitioning, there’s a strong public interest in allowing the public to see who’s on those petitions because it gives them confidence that the petitions meet the thresholds,” Kennedy told the TV station.

And confidence, for some, is sorely lacking in what they see as a politically driven system that sacrifices election integrity for political advantage.

And some, fair or not, have cast GAB as partly complicit. Kennedy, for instance, late last year said it was not the board’s responsibility to scour petitions for false names and duplicate signatures. A judge later demanded it must.

State election laws provide checks and balances, affording incumbents and their supporters the ability to review and challenge signatures, but GAB critics have said the independent board’s failure to thoroughly review petitions would put too much vetting onus on the shoulders of politicians under attack.

Transparency is what ultimately levels the playing field  —  not just for incumbents and challengers, but for the average citizen interested in or concerned about the recall system.

Let’s be real here. Your average Cheddarhead isn’t going to delve into hundreds of thousands of signatures in search of similar handwriting or phony names.

But some will, and it’s nice to know it’s there.

It certainly has been there before.

Last summer, confronting a spate of Senate recall campaigns, the GAB posted all recall signatures online.

“In Wisconsin, election petitions have always been public records, and the Government Accountability Board previously published the 2011 State Senate recall petitions online in the interest of transparency,” the GAB’s website states.

Search there today and you will find the recall signatures in the campaigns targeting Republican state senators  —  Pam Galloway of Wausau, Terry Moulton of Chippewa Falls, Van Wanggaard of Racine, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau.

Magney on Monday told Wisconsin Reporter that the reported 845,000 signatures in the recall campaign against Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch were expected to be online later this week.

So why the line in the sand now?

The issue has brought together some interesting allies in the battle for transparency. Conservative news organization the MacIver Institute and Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and Money and Politics Project director at the liberal Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism,  have criticized the GAB’s postponement.

The Center for Investigative Journalism, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization like MacIver, has not taken a position on the matter.

For those with serious, legitimate safety concerns, there should be some way of individually keeping names from the public while protecting the integrity of the process.

Wisconsin Reporter believes transparency in government and public life is the best antidote to the diseases of corruption and incompetence, and we stand by all who ask the GAB to quickly reinstate its decision to post online the recall petition signatures.

Wisconsin Reporter, like other media outlets have advised, will seek the documents through open records requests if need be.

Transparency isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always pretty — much like democracy.

But there can be a manageable balance between the public’s right to know and the protection of victims.

Let’s find that balance and protect democracy.

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  • Brad

    The hypocrisy of the left knows no bounds, again. The GAB has thrown a stall into the mix, to protect the recall fraud that was committed during the past few months. The smoke screen being used as an excuse is privacy, and fear of being stalked or such bull. They are screaming fake fears of being treated by the right, how they treat the right. The fact is they will probably get away with it as usual. I certainly hope our side develops a long memory concerning these things. What a scam.

  • Brad

    I would’ve put this post on the story of the GAB siding with transparency over privacy, but the Wisconsin Reporter has chosen to not allow comments on that story, like it does on most stories. This story is close enough, so here goes. The GAB has NOT sided with transparency over privacy. It has put the 150,000+/- pages of petition signatures on the web, and left them unsearchable. If the GAB was serious about transparency, it would’ve put the signatures in a search engine so I could enter my name and/or address to see if someone had forged my name and/or address to these petitions. I would also be able to know how many times my name and/or address had been forged, and which petitions they were on. But the GAB didn’t do that, surprise surprise, because the GAB is still performing it’s intended function of stacking the deck in favor of the marxist/democrats, over the rest of us.

  • bea

    I work with abused victims at times as a counselor, and I can honestly tell you that most of these women & children– (rare that it is men, but not unheard of !!) — the vast majority of them would not be inclined to sign their name on the dotted line with their present address. If they are in ” hiding ” from their abusers and/ or stalkers they WOULD NOT be so silly to sign such a petition revealing their present hidden location. Most likely, if ANY abused/ stalked person would sign such a public list, they would put their old (or a fake) address and city on it !!

    Furthermore, those who are focused on finding their victim of abuse/ stalking are focused on their rage and impotence … most would never think about searching a GAB list of liberal whiners… at least not until the liberal pundits gave them this silly notion!!

    Both the abused and the abuser do not have the time for silly governmental politics (unless they themselves are politicians)… These poor souls are more focused on their moment to moment life of abuse (or abusing)!! Let’s get real Wisconsin liberal pundits and politicians !! The abused and the stalked are just focused on staying hidden — safely hidden!! — and they UNDERSTAND that to reveal themselves in such a way as to sign their names on this kind of list would allow their abuser / stalker to locate them… this is just plan FOOLISHNESS !! give them some credit that they do have some intelligence on how to remain safely hidden.

    I will admit to sign this petition may cause some of those who did sign it to be stalked by an angry family member or neighbor… but I seriously doubt it !!