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The Utah Supreme Court has ruled that state election officials must accept online petition signatures to qualify individuals for the ballot.
"A signature under (Utah law) does not require a signor to physically handle a piece of paper and sign her name with a pen," justices said in a 15-page ruling issued as voters went to the polls for primary elections. "An electronic signature is sufficient to satisfy the election code."
In March, Utah Lt. Governor Greg Bell rejected a nominating petition from Farley Anderson, an independent gubernatorial candidate, saying state law did not allow for e-signatures. Anderson had included more than 150 e-signatures on his petition.
In its unanimous ruling, the court said Bell's decision "exceeded the bounds of discretion" afforded his office and he would need specific rules in place to exempt the election process from laws that allow electronic signatures in other settings.
The ruling orders the signatures submitted by Anderson to be recounted to determine whether he qualifies for the November ballot.
"The court's opinion, which is the first of it's kind nationwide, has the potential to increase significantly the ability of independent candidates to access the general election ballots," said Darcy Goddard, legal director for the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued the case on Anderson's behalf.
At a news conference Tuesday, Bell said his office will review Anderson's petition quickly add his name to the November ballot if he has gathered the required 1000 signatures.
Bell said he never opposed electronic signatures.
"My concern was that I needed someone to tell me what electronic signatures ought to be and how they should be governed," he said.
"This is very complicated because what we have now is people gathering signatures on their own website and deciding what's valid and what's not."
Bell said his office will now have to develop new election protocols related to e-signatures.
"This is brave new world where no one has gone before," he said.
The court's ruling could also preview a showdown over the use of e-signatures to get initiatives and referendums on the ballot. Utah doesn't require signature verification for candidate petitions, but state election law requires that signatures on initiative and referendum petitions are verified.
The verification issue wasn't addressed by the court, but the ruling may help grass-roots groups more easily clear the initial hurdle of collecting signatures, said Steve G. Maxfield, who has been collecting online signatures for an initiative concerning legislative ethics.
Utah law acknowledges that electronic signatures are valid substitutes for handwritten ones, but the state attorney general's office argued that e-signatures on petitions could not be counted because election law only contemplates a paper-based system.
No other state allows for e-signatures in the election process.
Electronic signature forms require a signer to submit the same information as they would on a paper petition - name, address and birthday. Anderson used the website https://www.i-sign.us to collect his petition signatures.
A petition is now posted there for Maxfield, who is Anderson's running mate for lieutenant governor.
Anderson called Tuesday's ruling a historic event for all Utahans interested in the democratic process.
"I'm so well pleased I could pop a button," the 53-year-old entrepreneur said.