A citizens group seeking ethics law changes in Utah said Tuesday it is soliciting signatures for its initiatives online, potentially setting up a showdown with state elections officials who must decide whether electronic signatures are valid when it comes to placing an initiative on the ballot.
No state currently allows electronic signatures to be submitted for initiatives, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But The Peoples Right LLC contends that Utah's electronic signature verification law allows registered voters to submit their names online. The group is using its online system to gather signatures for two initiatives it is seeking to place on the Utah ballot in the fall.
But whether those signatures can be counted will be up to the lieutenant governor's office, which administers elections in Utah.
State law acknowledges that electronic signatures are valid substitutes for handwritten ones, but the election code makes numerous references to paper forms that must meet strict guidelines before they can be accepted.
"It would be a pretty big policy change in our office to deviate from that," said Mark Thomas, office administrator for Lt. Gov. Greg Bell. "If the Legislature wants that, that would be great. We could look at changing it."
But he added that Bell has not yet made a decision — and won't until county clerks turn in their signatures for verification this spring.
The Peoples Right believes its system for gathering signatures online is not only legal but the wave of the future.
"This is a major leap forward in bringing people into the legislative process," said Wayne Crawford, a spokesman for the Utah group. "(Voters) can now have easy access to their inherent legislative authority and overcome the barriers that politicians have placed in their way. It will represent a major change in government."
The system will help initiative sponsors in Utah overcome one of their biggest obstacles — having to travel to both metro and extremely rural areas to get people to sign their petitions, the group said.
Utah legislators have purposely made getting an initiative on the ballot a difficult task, fearing the state could be overwhelmed by initiatives. To get an initiative on the 2010 ballot, sponsors must gather about 95,000 signatures by April from registered voters in 26 of the state's 29 Senate districts.
Crawford's group is gathering signatures for initiatives aimed at restricting campaign contributions.
In Utah, elected officials can spend campaign contributions on anything they want — houses, boats and swimming pools included — as long as they disclose it. Utah also places no limits on who may contribute to a campaign or how large contributions can be.
Electronic copies of The Peoples Right's initiatives appear online just as they do on paper. But rather than having to physically sign the forms and provide their name, address and birthday, voters can type in the same information to submit their signature online. That information is then checked against voter registration databases.
"We also will require an identification number that the county clerks have available to them that they can use to actually verify this person is the person representing themselves to be, and that would be the last four digits of their driver license number," Crawford said. "It's actually much more secure than the paper process. If you walk up to someone at a grocery, you can sign any name you want."
Joel Foster, director of ballot integrity for the Washington-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, said he's unaware of any other attempts to submit signatures online for a statewide initiative.
While the think tank advocates for laws that reduce voter fraud, Foster says the it has not yet taken a position on electronic signatures.
"Frankly, I think it's so new we haven't had a chance to look in-depth to see if it would be safe for the public," he said.
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