SAN FRANCISCO — A divided federal appeals court panel on Monday overturned a California election law that requires sponsors of ballot initiatives to identify themselves on the petitions they circulate for signatures.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that compelling disclosure violates the First Amendment right to anonymous speech.
“The petition-proponent disclosure requirement is unconstitutional,” Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain wrote for the 2-1 panel.
The appeals court cited two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that overturned Colorado’s requirement that signature gatherers wear badges and an Ohio law banning anonymous campaign leaflets.
The court said anonymity protects speakers from harassment and focuses voters on the issues rather than personalities. The appeals court also noted that ballot measure supporters’ names can be found in elections offices and must be published in general circulation newspapers.
Judge Susan Graber dissented from the three-judge panel. Graber said requiring identification helps voters make better informed choices as they make split-second decisions on whether to sign a petition asking to qualify a measure for the ballot.
“The government has an essential interest in preserving an electoral process that allows voters to know to whom they are delegating lawmaking power when signing a particular petition,” Graber wrote.
The full court did agree that corporations and organizations can’t sponsor ballot measures, only people can.
Nick Pacilio, a spokesman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris, said her office is reviewing the decision. If she doesn’t want to let the ruling stand, Harris could ask a special panel of 11 judges of the appeals court to reconsider, or she could petition the U.S. Supreme Court.