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Bob Ferguson

AGO 1953 No. 152 -
Attorney General Don Eastvold


An election petition requesting the calling of a special election for the purpose of annexing a portion of a city or town becomes a public record when filed with the city clerk. 

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                                                                October 23, 1953 

Honorable Earl Coe
Secretary of State
Legislative Building
Olympia, Washington                                                                                                              Cite as:  AGO 53-55 No. 152 


Dear Sir:

            This is in answer to your letter of October 5, 1953.  The question is whether petitions requesting the calling of a special election for the purpose of annexing a portion of a city or town become public records upon filing with the city clerk. 

            Our conclusion is that such petitions do become public records. 


            The problem arises out of the proposed annexation of a portion of a city or town under the provisions of RCW 35.12.010.  Opponents of the proposed annexation seek to photograph or copy the names of the petition signers for the purpose of furthering their campaign against the proposed annexation.  Your question is whether or not the petition becomes a public record when filed with the city clerk, so that these signatures may be available to photograph or copy.  You have directed our attention to an opinion of G. W. Hamilton, Attorney General, dated August 25, 1938, in which he indicated considerable doubt whether such  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] petitions would ever become public records.  His theory was that petitions are, in effect, a vote of those who signed the petitions upon the matter in issue.  The opinion states in part: 

            "It is the public policy of this state that we uphold the secret ballot in every particular, * * *" 

            The Attorney General indicates that he entertained considerable doubt on the question, but concluded that in his opinion they are not public records and that the election officers should refuse to permit them to be inspected or copied. 

            We have reviewed this opinion and again researched the question for the purpose of bringing our thinking up to date.  We find there is still no case law upon the matter in this state.  However it is our opinion that certain statutory and constitutional provisions, when construed together, dictate a conclusion contrary to that reached by Mr. Hamilton. 

            The secret ballot policy to which he referred is based upon Article VI, section 6 of the state constitution.  It requires that allelections be by ballot and that secrecy in preparing and depositing such ballots be secured.  The term "election" and the different types thereof are defined in RCW 29.01.050, 29.01.070, 29.01.130, and 29.01.170.  The statutes refer to the various elections designated as general primary, or special and the definitions are confined to those situations where ballots are actually cast and deposited by the voter for the purpose of making a decision upon the matter in issue. 

            The petitions here in question are a preliminary step for the purpose of requiring a special election, which election will be held at a later time.  The petitions are not ballots, nor are they in any material respect similar to ballots.  It is common knowledge that many citizens will sign petitions for the purpose of putting a matter upon the ballot for vote, without any intention of ever voting for the measure.  It is a commendable attribute of these citizens that they desire a clear expression of public opinion on controversial matters, even at the risk of defeat, in order that such issues be amicably settled.  We are unable to concur with Mr. Hamilton's conclusion that signatures upon such petitions are in effect a vote upon the matter in issue. 

            The petitions involved raise questions of great public interest.  The conducting of a special election involves the expenditure of a considerable amount of public  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] money.  Every taxpayer and every voting citizen should be vitally concerned with such matters.  It seems to us clear beyond doubt that the entire matter falls within the realm of "public business." 

            Furthermore, the petitions, including the signatures thereon, have been readily available to a large segment of the voting public.  The proponents of the matter in issue have certainly had adequate opportunity to study the signatures.  To permit this group to be fully apprised of the alignment of public opinion upon the question, while denying the same privilege to its opponents, is an obvious inconsistency.  If there is any advantage to be gained by such knowledge, the unfairness of secrecy is self-evident. 

            We have said before that public business is just that‑-the public's business.  No official should ever stand in the way of a complete public understanding of such matters.  Public policy dictates that all things concerning such business be made a matter of public record, except where the welfare of the public demands secrecy.  We see no reason why such petitions should not be considered matters of public record as soon as they are filed. 

            It is our opinion that petitions requesting the calling of a special election are matters of public record when filed with the proper official.  Such records should be made available to the inspection of any citizen upon request, and should include the right to copy or photograph the signatures thereon.  This right should, of course, be subject to reasonable rules with respect to the particular time and place where the documents may be made available for inspection. 

Very truly yours, 

Attorney General 

Assistant Attorney General