Taking the ink out of signatures

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

A few weeks ago, a statewide ballot initiative petition signed by a California voter named Michael Ni was delivered — quietly and without fanfare — to the clerk’s office in San Mateo County.

Strange as it may sound, this is no exaggeration: Ni’s John Hancock may reshape American politics forever.

Ni did not sign his name on a piece of paper. His signature was electronic. He wrote his name on the petition (a measure to legalize and tax cannabis in California) using the touch screen of his iPhone. The signature was then delivered to the county clerk on a flash drive, one of those small memory storage devices you use to back up files on your computer.

In doing this, Ni — the co-founder of a Silicon Valley start-up that has developed a technology for electronic signature-gathering — was seeking to challenge the rules that have governed the American political economy since the Progressive era.

Money may be the mother’s milk of politics, but the real currency of the ballot box is voter signatures. Candidates must collect signatures to get on the ballot. Ballot initiatives need signatures to qualify. Voters can’t register to vote or request absentee ballots unless they put their signature on paper.

With all the paper and printing and mailing and validation, the business of collecting signatures is a costly one. As a result, access to a ballot is generally limited to those candidates and interests with deep pockets. Nowhere is that more evident than in California, where qualifying an initiative for a statewide ballot is at minimum a $2-million proposition.

Electronic signatures could disrupt this economy by making signatures, and therefore access to ballots, much, much cheaper. Ni’s signature thus promises — for better and worse — a new era of grass-roots politics, with more registered voters, more middle-class candidates and more initiatives without billionaires, big business or big labor unions behind them.

If Ni’s signature is determined to be legal. He and the fellow founders of his firm, Verafirma — Democratic political consultant Jude Barry and entrepreneur Michael Marubio — submitted the signature in anticipation of having to defend it in court.

By virtue of taking place in Silicon Valley, this battle will be a home game for the technology crowd. The San Mateo County clerk, Warren Slocum, has a national reputation for his technological savvy. His office maintains a blog and regularly updates its Twitter account. He has embraced electronic voting machines. In the name of saving money and the environment, he has fought to have printed voting materials replaced with electronic versions.

Nevertheless, Slocum will be Ni’s opponent in a legal contest that could begin as soon as this week. In an interview, Slocum said that, on the advice of attorneys, he cannot accept Ni’s electronic signature as valid. Without clear precedent, he doesn’t know whether the state legal requirement that a voter “personally affix” his signature to an initiative petition would cover Ni’s case.

“It’s questionable whether it meets the requirements of the law,” Slocum said. “A court is probably the place where the question can be decided.”

However, he notes that shoppers have been signing screens in grocery stores and outlet malls for 20 years, so “it’s natural that this will come to the world of elections.”

The anticipated legal case could turn on semantic questions raised by applying century-old rules to 21st century technology. What constitutes a “signed” petition under the state Constitution’s requirement that a petition must be “certified to have been signed” before it can be put on a ballot? Critics will argue that an electronic signature is not as secure or trustworthy as ink on paper. Verafirma will counter that its software application mimics the act of signing — users write on a touch screen just as they would on paper — and that by capturing data on each stroke, the technology is more easily verifiable than a pen-and-paper signature.

If Ni’s signature quickly wins the approval of the courts, efforts to reform California’s dysfunctional government could get an important boost. The constitutional convention movement, which stalled last week because of a lack of money to pay signature-gatherers, might be revived at a lower cost if electronic signatures were permitted.

UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff says he will begin collecting electronic signatures this week for his initiative to replace the state Constitution’s requirement of a two-thirds legislative vote for budget appropriations and tax increases with a majority vote provision. He says his attorneys have advised him that Ni’s signature is likely to be certified.

“In the age of the iPad,” Lakoff said, “this is inevitable.”

If he’s right, a new era of American politics may start with a single signature.

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