Utah State Senator Stephen Urquhart is the author of Senate Bill 55 (S.B. 55), which would require state agencies to engage in a formal rule-making procedure regarding the acceptance of electronic signatures before any such signatures could be accepted. Critics of the bill say it is an attempt to contravene a recent Utah State Supreme Court decision (Anderson v. Bell) legitimizing the use of electronic signatures on official state petitions, such as those used to qualify independent gubernatorial candidates for the state ballot.
At a hearing on this bill before the Utah legislature’s Business and Labor committee on February 15th, Senator Urquhart spoke out strongly in support of the referendum and initiative processes and of electronic signatures. He offered no assurances, however, that, should his bill pass, Utahns would be able to sign referendum or initiative petitions, or ballot access petitions, electronically.
In a February 10th interview with Etopia News, Paul Neuenschwander, Chief of Staff to Utah Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell, the state’s chief election officer, said that, in his view, S.B. 55 would return regulation of electronic signatures “back to the way it was” before the Supreme Court’s decision in Anderson v. Bell and indicated that the Lieutenant Governor’s office would not be accepting electronic signatures for ballot access if the bill passed.
During the February 15th meeting, after accepting an amendment of the bill by its author that he said was designed to narrow its applicability, the committee favorably recommended the bill, sending it on to a second reading in the Utah State Senate, where it is now pending.
As currently worded, S.B. 55 would prohibit the acceptance of electronic signatures in Utah by any “state agency” that had not first gone through a rule-making procedure to determine the criteria for accepting such signatures.
The only member of the general public to testify before the committee was attorney Brent Manning, who represented Farley Anderson, the independent gubernatorial candidate in Anderson v. Bell who sought to use electronic signatures to gain access to the state ballot.
He told the committee, as he had previously told Etopia News, that the passage of S.B. 55 “would absolutely cripple the ability of the state to conduct electronic commerce” because it would render invalid even the most commonly-occurring instances of electronic commerce involving electronic signatures, such as buying a book online.
Asked by Senator Karen Mayne why, if the bill would do so much damage to electronic commerce in Utah, he was the only person testifying against it, Mr. Manning attributed this to the fact that “it’s been under the radar,” and went on to say that “the ACLU alerted me to this happening and I looked at the bill and commented upon it in the Internet press. I think that sparked the amendment that was made just now.”
Also appearing before the panel was Mark Thomas, Director of Elections for the Lieutenant Governor’s office, who thanked “the sponsor for running this bill.”
During consideration of the bill, Senator Urquhart spoke passionately about his support for the initiative and referendum processes, electronic signatures, and the digital domain generally, saying at one point that “I think I’ve been out on the digital frontier for a while and I like being there and I like our state being there. It is so convenient for our citizens and, as Mr. Manning said, this can be done with tremendous reliability.”
He asserted his support for referenda and initiatives, saying, during his summation of the legislation, that “On my blog I’ve talked repeatedly about referenda and initiative, having the distinction of being the only legislator ever to have a piece of legislation overturned by referendum. I have opinions on the topic and my opinion is that they’re great. I’m an enthusiastic supporter of referenda and initiatives. I do not want to chill democratic participation at all. We need more of it, and so let’s make it easier, but anything we love and want to encourage we have to make sure that it works and that’s the intent of this.”
But he was vague about actually saying if his bill would allow for the electronic signing of referendum, initiative and ballot access petitions. Asked by Senator Gene Davis, “Does that mean that the Lieutenant Governor’s office or a clerk in one of the counties could recognize those signatures and they would be valid or would that have to go to the Lieutenant Governor’s office and they’d have to set the policy to be able to do those?,” Senator Urquhart replied:
“Well, if it’s a statewide referendum then that would go through our elections office and they would have to set a policy for accepting electronic signatures. You know, let me state I want us to be very active in this. I would love for us to be the state that is the most aggressive on accepting electronic signatures but let’s just do this in a thought-out manner.”
Asked further by Senator Davis “Would the electronic signature have to go through the Lieutenant Governor’s office or a portal that was set up by those who were trying to put the referendum in place?,” Senator Urquhart said:
“Well, I wouldn’t want to tell the Lieutenant Governor’s office, the Elections Office, how it would best go about this, so it would set the rules determining the answer to your question, it would look at this situation, it would look to see the ways that it could be the most convenient for the citizenry, the most conducive to democratic participation and also the way best to secure against fraud. And so it would come up with the answer to your question. I can’t do that right here and now.”
To repeat, what Senator Urquhart said during the February 15th hearing on S.B. 55 in no way contradicted what was said in the February 10th interview with Etopia News by Paul Neuenschwander, Chief of Staff to Utah Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell, the state’s chief election officer, when he said that, in his view, S.B. 55 would return regulation of electronic signatures “back to the way it was” before the Supreme Court’s decision in Anderson v. Bell and indicated that the Lieutenant Governor’s office would not be accepting electronic signatures for ballot access (nor, presumably, for initiatives or referenda, either) if the bill is enacted into law.