Electronic signatures?

We’re publishing an editorial Tuesday urging the state to allow people to sign citizen initiatives electronically on-line. Here’s our reasoning:

Utah politicians recently passed a law allowing people to easily remove their signatures from initiative petitions. One reason is it’s too easy for pushy signature gatherers to browbeat people into signing something they really don’t understand. That makes sense. (The other reason is they hate having citizens write laws.)

However, people who go online to seek out and sign a petition are, by definition, motivated and informed. Prohibiting such signatures is nothing but a transparent move to keep the initiatives from succeeding.

But while Utah is one of only 24 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allows citizen initiatives, it isn’t alone in this reluctance to accept electronic petition signatures.

Now the European Union is beginning an initiative process with a new twist. If 1 million citizens from nine of the EU’s 27 nation states sign a petition, they can introduce a bill to be considered by the union. And they can do this via online signatures. (Read about it here. Read a blog about it here.)

I’m not a big fan of an easy initiative process. Members of the general public tend to be misinformed and easily susceptible to outside pressures or emotional appeals. Initiatives don’t have to go through the moderating process of hearings, amendments and debates to which other bills are subject.

But I do think it’s important to allow for initiatives, so long as the bar is high. I’m not impressed with arguments that the public gets to hold politicians accountable only on Election Day. Sometimes, lawmakers as a body consistently refuse to pass laws the public clearly wants.

Utah has set the bar sufficiently high for initiatives, requiring signatures representing 10 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election from 26 of 29 senate districts.

But I like the EU model. Why not make it a little easier to pass initiatives, and allow electronic signatures, but have successful ones result only in bills that must be considered by the Legislature? That would clearly show the will of the people, while still preserving the representative process for turning bills into law.

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About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

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