A handful of grass-roots groups are gathering electronic signatures to put initiatives on the ballot this fall, but this new form of digital democracy will not be accepted by Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell.
Bell, the state's chief elections officer, issued a statement to that effect Wednesday after receiving a legal opinion from Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
"Electronic signatures will not be valid for the purposes of certifying an initiative or referendum for inclusion on a state ballot," Bell's office said.
Shurtleff, in a five-page analysis, said "My review and analysis of the statutory provisions indicates that the laws governing initiatives do not contemplate or allow for the use of electronic signatures."
Also, state law does not require that electronic signatures be accepted, Shurtleff added.
An attorney for one of the initiative groups passing petitions disagreed with the analysis and said the issue is likely headed to court.
"We see nothing in state law that prohibits the use of electronic signatures for these purposes," said David Irvine, an attorney who helped draft a comprehensive ethics initiative.
"This ought to be a non-issue," Irvine added. "But they'll force us into a court case -- and we're ready to go."
Under current statute, paper petitions are the only means to gather the 95,000 signatures needed -- 10 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial race -- by the April 15 deadline to get citizen legislation on the next general-election ballot.
Several measures aim to reach voters this November: the Fair Boundaries redistricting initiative, a broad ethics initiative sponsored by Utahns for Ethical Government, two measures put forward by The Peoples Right for campaign finance caps and a ban on personal use of campaign funds, and the Rings True Coalition's repeal of the single-rate income tax.
In late January, groups took their signature-gathering efforts online, arguing that since 2000, electronic signatures have been a secure, legal way to conduct business with the government.
The Lieutenant Governor's Office was mindful of those efforts in seeking an expedited opinion.
"We needed to make sure that people knew one way or another if those signatures were going to be counted," said Mark Thomas, Bell's office administrator. "We could have waited until April but there's a lot of people out there signing."
Irvine, who is working on UEG's ethics initiative, said Shurtleff's analysis came as no surprise.
"We expected nothing less of the Attorney General," Irvine said. "We understand and appreciate that he and the Lieutenant Governor's Office are under tremendous legislative pressure to 'kabosh' these initiatives."
The UEG measure has been hotly contested by most state lawmakers, who are in the midst of advancing their own ethics reforms.
Shurtleff's arguments centered on statutory safeguards for the paper process. But Irvine believes the AG failed to ask the right questions.