If An Electronic Signature Is Good Enough for Fiscal Cliff Legislation…

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)

News item: President Obama did not sign the legislation to avert the fiscal cliff himself, by putting a pen to paper. Instead, he ordered the legislation signed using an autopen—an electronic signature.

Reaction: Will California’s elected leaders accept the legality of the legislation?

Because those same leaders are convinced that an electronic signature has no currency in this state when it comes to citizen legislation. While there have been legal challenges on the subject, the state has consistently held that electronic signatures on ballot initiatives have no legal force.

Now would be the natural time to change that. The state legislature is talking about reforming the initiative process – which is a good thing, because reforms are badly needed. But that discussion has focused more on restricting the process in various ways and on giving the legislature more of a role in the process.

There’s a case to be made for doing that. But new rules and restrictions should be paired with measures that open up the process, so that wise limits on what initiatives can do don’t curdle into limits on the ability of citizens to access the process.

Permitting electronic signatures, as has been argued here before, is one way to do that.

The fear about e-gathering is that it will produce even more initiatives. But e-signatures are now being used in Finland and in European Union. There’s no big rise in initiatives (in part because it’s hard to get people to sign electronically, without the organizing and money needed to reach people).

And is there any real question whether electronic signatures are reliable? They are used for virtually every commercial transaction. And even for major acts of the federal government. If an electronic signature is good enough for the president, why isn’t it good enough for California?

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