Electronic signature gathering sparks scrutiny, discussion at I&R forum

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 05-Aug-2010

At the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in San Francisco over the past week, Jude Barry, co-founder of Verafirma, was understandably most interested in California Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s comments about electronic signature gathering (e-signatures or digital signatures) for ballot initiative and referendum (I&R) campaigns.

Barry’s company is on the leading edge of the digital revolution, while Bowen is the state government official most likely to be responsible for oversight of digitally-gathered initiative petition signatures.

In Monday’s keynote address at the forum, which drew hundreds of participants to the Hastings Law School, University of California, Bowen seemed critical of the new methodology for gathering, and in large part verifying, signatures in ballot initiative campaigns.

Bowen said she is concerned that the cost of many initiative petition campaigns may keep them out of the reach of most citizens: “A cost of $2 to $3 per signature is not uncommon, and it can be $12 in the latter days before turning signatures in for approval.” Secretary Bowen argued that initiative petitions in the state should carry disclosure information on whether or not the petition circulator is paid or volunteer.

Ballot measures can be long or confusing, she said. She wonders if it’s possible “there can be too much direct democracy.” She said she supports disclosure all the way through the process. The intrusiveness and efficacy of some financial and other disclosure provisions were, however, a subject of debate throughout the forum.

In her keynote, Bowen expressed her concerns about e-filings or electronic signature collection and verification in the initiative process. She questioned security standards for the collection, transmission and storage of electronic signature information.

Although it might prove helpful in determining signature validity, Bowen seemed in part to share of the libertarian sensitivities of many attendees at the forum, saying she was “reluctant to rely on biometrics, or too much private or personal disclosure to help achieve certainty in the process.”

She wondered if public officials become responsible for collecting individual information from irises, thumbprints or other personal information.

In response to a question after her speech, Bowen it is not that she is against e-filing or digital retrieval of intiative signatures, but want “to assure an honest process.” She is “excited about the potential” of e-signatures but is urging caution as more is learned about technology.

Barry’s firm is the leading exponent of the new technology. In an interview, he told CapitolBeatOK:

“Most people understand our technology is a game changer that will help true grassroots initiatives who can’t afford to compete with the special interests who control the initiative game today.  It’ll also help local governments who are burdened by the cost of an archaic paper-based system.”

He continued, “We’re not sure where Secretary Bowen will ultimately come down on this issue.  She’s raised some technical questions which we can easily address.”

Barry concluded by telling CapitolBeatOK, “The terrible irony is that although California is home to Silicon Valley, our state government is slow to embrace new technology even when it’s been successfully used for decades in other industries.”

Barry’s firm recently garnered worldwide attention among political professionals and analysts for convincing the Santa Clara County registrar of voters in California to accept eight voter registration forms submitted digitally. Barry is working to get the system in place for this November’s election in all 58 counties in the nation’s most heavily populated state

Despite her concerns about digital signature collection, in her keynote address Bowen was clearly proud of many aspects of California’s initiative system. She said, “the framework, the process, can determine outcomes in our elections, or how deliberations over outcomes unfold.” Process is important, because it drives “how we vote, and who can vote.”

She noted that for many decades the initiative process in California was seldom used, before it “exploded” over the last three decades. Bowe is proud of the voter guide the state does for every election cycle. The guide was once mailed to every registered voter in the state, but is now only sent to voter households, due to budget constraints.

That guide Bowen touts includes arguments for and against key ballot measures. Her power is limited, but meaningful: “I don’t write them, but one power I do I have is to choose which arguments are included in the state election guide.”

NOTE: We are grateful to photographer Steve Rhodes for his help in coverage of the Global Forum.