In Our Democracy, Public Voting Records Are Part Of The Package

Sometimes readers ask us questions, hoping our answers will mirror their viewpoints. That's not true of today's crop - one question about the availability of voting records and another about those utility poles you see peppered with advertisements.

How private are your voting records? asks W.J.M. of North Seattle.

Just before the recent special election on renovation and improvements for Seattle Center, W.J.M. received a mailing from "Friends of the Center."

Then he read that the organization had targeted "frequent" voters with its literature.

How would that organization or any other know who votes regularly?

"Does the county sell voters' names and addresses to whoever?" he asked. "Is this legal? I thought my vote was a private privilege."

Under state election and public disclosure laws, the names and addresses of registered voters are available for public inspection and copying at cost.

W.J.M. was surprised to learn this, and not pleased. He believes other voters may share his views.

But this is a democracy, folks, and public records are part of the package.

The way one votes, the Social Security number and date of birth are not available, said Bob Bruce, King County elections superintendent.

If political organizations want to copy names and addresses from public records, there is no cost. If they want copies of printed pages or computer tapes, they pay production costs. The county doesn't make a profit on these transactions, Bruce emphasized.

When an organization or a candidate requests a list of registered voters, they may select by legislative district, precinct or municipality, Bruce said.

Political organizations also may order a list of voters who requested absentee ballots.

Friends of Seattle Center paid $573.96 for names and addresses of citizens who requested absentee ballots.

The county has no record of the organization buying other voter registration lists.

It's likely the group bought voters' address labels from an outside vendor. That is a relatively common practice.

The county is required to maintain voting records for the past five years, Bruce says. If an individual hasn't voted in four years, they are dropped from the list of registered voters.

Political organizations that obtain the names and addresses of voters are required to sign a document stating that they will use the information only for campaign purposes, not commercial sales or advertising.

Address-label vendors must sign the same document, Bruce said.

Just in case you missed the election, a $50 million levy on Seattle residents for maintenance projects and other improvements at Seattle Center passed. The $94.3 million countywide levy failed.

Cluttered poles

J.W., another reader, has a beef with the city of Seattle.

"It seems that telephone poles all over the city are being covered with advertising. We've always had the `garage sale' and `missing pet' signs, but now commercial enterprises apparently have found this to be a low-cost approach to advertising. Our residential neighborhoods are being inundated with realty `home for sale' and lately `Mike the Mover' signs.

"Does the city have any mechanism to control these (usually nonbiodegradable) signs? If not, can you suggest what the general public might do to eliminate this unsightly future litter?" J.W. asked.

A representative of the Seattle Engineering Department says J.W.'s assumption probably is correct that commercial enterprises have found telephone pole signs to be effective, low-cost advertising.

In April 1990, the city was enjoined from interfering "with the postering activities of citizens."

The Superior Court order followed a complaint by Neil Fox, a Seattle attorney who was arrested and jailed for hanging posters on poles. Other citizens joined in Fox's action.

Judge Robert Dixon said it was OK to tape posters on poles, but not to use paste or staples. Utilities have cited the latter as a safety problem for repair crews.

The court order means police may not arrest citizens or cite them for littering when they post signs on poles. Similarly, the Seattle Board of Public Works cannot take action against citizens who use utility and metal light poles for advertisements.

Now the only way the city can control these signs is to take them down, says Bernice Sharp of the Engineering Department. And no staff has been budgeted for this role.

Los Angeles has 16 city work crews that tear down and peel away signs. A two-person crew removes about 300 signs a day. Legislation gave Los Angeles the power to fine offenders to pay for the program.

Frankly we don't think utility poles filled with posters and ads are the biggest blight in the city. However, it would be a mark of good citizenship if folks who put up posters would take them down when events are over.

Shelby Gilje's Troubleshooter column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday in the Scene section of The Times. Do you have a problem? Write to Times Troubleshooter, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Include copies, not originals, of documents indicating payment, guarantees, contracts and other relevant materials.