Electronic petition signature
Petitioners in three states in 2010 attempted to turn in electronic signatures, but, in all three cases, the elections officials refused to accept electronic signatures as a valid technique of signing a petition. The Utah Supreme Court, however, unanimously upheld their validity in July.
The ability to use electronic signatures to qualify a petition continues to be proposed and contested in multiple states.
Electronic signing techniques
One way to electronically sign a petition is to manually sign on an iPhone's touch screen. This is similar to the way that people sign credit card authorizations when they are purchasing consumer goods.
VeraFirma, a California-based company, has developed an iPhone application that facilitates this method of electronically signing a petition. People who own an iPhone can download VeraFirma's application, locate petitions to sign that have registered for the application, and then sign the petition.
Verafirma - Sign Initiative Petitions with your iPhone, 12-8-09
In a 2010 ruling on June 22 the Utah Supreme Court unanimously concluded that electronic signatures were just as valid as handwritten signatures and must be accepted by state election officials. Initiatives, however, were not explicitly discussed in the ruling.
On July 8, 2010, Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell issued an interim rule on electronic signatures for initiatives and referendums. According to reports and state documents the new rule would allow the collection of electronic signatures while still maintaining the rules for accountability and integrity of the process. The interim rule would remain valid and in effect for 120 days. For the first 30 days the lieutenant governor's office took public comments and was set to later determine if a public hearing was necessary. Following that period, state officials were scheduled to work with the Utah Legislature to establish a permanent rule in the state code.
According to the new rule, sponsors of statewide initiatives or referendums were required to use an "electronic packet" created by the lieutenant governor's office and that a person electronically signing a petition could only do so in a petition circulator's presence. Opponents of this rule argued that this did not allow for the chief purpose of electronic signatures - which is to facilitate signature gathering by allowing it to be done online - and largely restricts petitioners to publicly collecting signatures with computers, tablets or smartphones instead of paper and pen. However, state officials argued that there are many electronic methods in which to comply with the new rule. For example, the program Skype could be used to make sure a circulator is present during signing. Supporters described the new rule as "an unauthorized exercise of authority" by Bell.
Senate Bill 165
Senate Bill 165 was first introduced during 2011 state legislative session on February 25, 2011, where it was read for the first time in front of the state senate. The measure bans collecting petition signatures online, instead mandating that signatures be obtained directly from registered voters. The Utah State Senate voted on the proposal on March 8, 2011, sending it to the House for consideration with a vote of 26-1.
On March 9, 2011, the Utah House of Representatives approved the proposal with a vote of 52-23, sending the bill to Governor of Utah Gary Herbert, where it was enacted after he signed the law. According to State Representative Patrice Arent, this would make it even more difficult to place a citizen initiative on the ballot in Utah. On the other hand, said State Representative Bradley Daw, this new law would decrease the likelihood of signature fraud.
Legislative Bill 566 would have allowed proponents to collect signatures electronically as long they pay a fee to the authorities for the operating costs. Under the bill, the basic fee for proponents to collect signatures electronically was $5,000. The cost would have doubled to $10,000 for campaigns intending to amend the Nebraska Constitution.
Although the bill ultimately died after being referred to the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, another version of an electronic petition signature bill - Legislative Bill 214 - was introduced again by Senator Schumacher in 2015.
Members of the Tennessee branch of NORML proposed a signature petition campaign to put a marijuana decriminalization initiative before voters. In the initial stages of the initiative process, they announced the intention to use electronic signatures to help qualify the initiative for the ballot. The Davidson County Election Commission, a committee of five members who are responsible for approving signature petitions for charter amendments, said they would not allow electronic signatures. On January 15, 2014, this motivated Tennessee NORML, joined by an organization called Democracy Nashville, to file a lawsuit against the Davidson County Election Commission in Davidson County Chancery Court seeking to require the commission to accept electronic signatures. According to Daniel Horwitz, an attorney representing initiative petitioners, the lawsuit is based on the state's Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, which says that "if a law requires a signature, an electronic signature satisfies the law." In a 2012 opinion, however, former Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper (D) stated that this law was designed to apply to other more individual uses of signatures and did not require election commissions to accept signatures collected via the internet for an initiative petition.
Since this lawsuit is based on a state law, the outcome could have a resounding effect on local petition processes throughout the state. It could result in the possibility of using electronic signatures to put measures before voters wherever the initiative and referendum powers are allowed, thereby making the initiative process much more accessible.
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- Utah Supreme Court opinion in Anderson v. Lt. Gov. Bell, No. 20100237, Filed June 22, 2010, 2010 UT 47"
- Mercury News, "Battle lines form over electronic signatures," February 17, 2010
- techPresident, "Use Your iPhone to Sign a Ballot Initiative: Test Case Launches in CA," January 5, 2010
- Associated Press, "Utah Supreme Court rules in favor of e-signatures," June 22, 2010
- KCPW, "No Decision Yet on E-Signatures for Ballot Initiatives," June 24, 2010
- Deseret News, "Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell says e-signatures allowed for ballot initiatives and referendums," July 8, 2010
- KCSG News, "Interim Rule on Electronic Signatures Established," July 8, 2010
- Deseret News, "E-signature rule may face challenge," July 11, 2010
- Standard-Examiner, "Skepticism about rules for using online petitions for elections," July 10, 2010
- Utah Legislature, "Bill Status-Senate Bill 165," accessed March 11, 2011
- The Republic, "Lawmakers pass ban on electronic signatures for ballot initiatives and candidates," March 9, 2011
- Ballot Access News, "Nebraska Bill for Electronic Signatures on Initiative and Recall Petitions" 24 Jan. 2011
- Nebraska Legislature, "LB566 - Provide for online petition signatures for recall, initiative, and referendum petitions," accessed July 22, 2011
- Columbus Telegram, "Schumacher introduces plan to allow online petition signatures," January 13, 2015
- Fremont Tribune, "Online petition signatures would be allowed under bill," February 14, 2015
- The Tennessean, "Referendum on marijuana prosecution sought in Nashville," January 15, 2015
- The Tennessean, "Marijuana group sues to use online signatures for petition," January 21, 2015