Initiative groups taking their signature drive online

Cathy McKitrick
January 25, 2010

Reform groups are trying a new tactic to reshape Utah government.

This past week, a grass-roots group called The Peoples Right established an online method for citizens to sign its "anti-bribery" and "anti-corruption" initiatives.

Now, two other initiative groups are following suit. Fair Boundaries is also set up to accept online signatures, and Utahns for Ethical Government intends to be ready soon.

After all, gathering 95,000 valid voter signatures statewide -- on paper petitions -- is not quick, easy or cheap. And the April 15 deadline is approaching. If that threshold is met, the measures can then go to a public vote on November's ballot.

"We've had some guidance from a few lawyers who think it's legal," said Fair Boundaries Field Director Glenn Wright. "And it's a more efficient way to collect signatures and to have the county clerks process."

The Fair Boundaries initiative aims to install an independent redistricting commission that would redraw Utah's congressional and legislative district boundaries after the 2010 census. The panel would advise the Legislature, which would retain the final say.

On Thursday, Fair Boundaries went live with its online signature feature and spread the word about it, unofficially, via e-mail. The flood of interest caused technical problems that afternoon, Wright said.

"So many people tried to get on and sign," Wright said, noting that at one point their site received a hit every two seconds.

The wrinkles should be ironed out soon, Wright added.

Meanwhile, Utahns for Ethical Government (UEG) is also gearing up to go paperless with its petition-signing.

UEG has a 21-page initiative aimed at establishing an independent ethics commission, setting campaign contribution limits and installing a clear code of conduct for state lawmakers.

"We're interested and not too far behind," UEG member Dixie Huefner said. "We're working the kinks out."

All three groups sense they're breaking new ground.

While electronic signatures have been legal for many commercial transactions in Utah since 2000, this will serve as the test case for use with citizen initiatives.

"If you read the statutes, we think it's pretty clear that it is permissible," said David Irvine, an attorney who helped draft the UEG initiative. "So we're going to find out."

Assistant Attorney General Thom Roberts, who serves as legal counsel for the Lieutenant Governor's Office, has said there are problems with electronic signatures being counted. Current statute dealing with initiatives dictates strict details for paper petitions but has no road map for gathering the signatures electronically.

But all three groups plan to forge ahead, even if the issue ends up in court over whether the signatures can actually be counted.

"It's a revolutionary thing for initiatives," Wright said. "I think the people of Utah will find this a useful way to do business and express their opinion."

For more information and to sign online:

» Redistricting initiative,

» The Peoples Right initiatives, and

» The UEG ethics initiative, (electronic-signature capability still pending)