SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has validated the use of electronic signatures in the election process, a first-of-its-kind decision that could have broad implications in Utah and the U.S.
In a unanimous decision Tuesday, the state's high court said Lt. Gov. Greg Bell overstepped his authority in rejecting gubernatorial hopeful Farley Anderson's candidate petition, which included a mix of handwritten and electronic signatures.
The court ordered Bell's office to recount the signatures and place Anderson's name on the November ballot if 1,000 signatures are found to be valid.
"This is a historic day," Anderson said outside the Matheson Courthouse. "This is a win for everybody in Utah."
The high court's decision could also be a boon for initiative petition efforts, such as the one being undertaken by Utahns for Ethical Government. Voter initiative petitions require additional verification compared with candidate petitions, and the Supreme Court did not address the issues UEG officials outlined in a friend of the court brief.
Nevertheless, the door appears open — at least for now — for e-signatures to count toward other petition efforts.
"The main hurdle is over," said Steven Maxfield, Anderson's running mate.
With limited funding, UEG officials collected about 75,000 handwritten signatures (about 20,000 short of being placed on the ballot) and about 10,000 online signatures. While Bell said he would directly apply the court's order to Anderson's case, the lieutenant governor said he would have to look at the "spirit and intent" of the ruling when evaluating e-signatures in the future.
"If we really believe in the principle of direct legislation, then the Legislature ought not to be throwing up as many barriers as possible to the right of the people to participate in that direct legislative process," said UEG attorney David Irvine. "They ought to be making it easier, and electronic signatures are a significant way of allowing ordinary citizens a voice."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said the state's decision to reject the so-called e-signatures limited ballot access for Anderson and other independent candidates. In court documents and oral arguments, state officials fought Farley's use of electronic signatures, saying Utah elections operated on a "paper-based system" and electronic signatures would open the process up to fraud.
"This is a brave new world where no one has gone before," the lieutenant governor said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
Bell said he has "never been opposed to electronic signatures per se," but his interpretation of state law differed from the court's.
Bell said his office would comply with the court's order to recount Anderson's signatures.
Because most states, including Utah, have adopted some form of the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, ACLU officials said the court's ruling could set a national precedent that could help shape the future of elections.
"The implications in this case go far beyond the state of Utah," said ACLU of Utah legal director Darcy Goddard.
Unless the Legislature acts to specifically reject e-signatures, the lieutenant governor's office must make plans for how it should handle electronic signatures in the future, Bell said.
"I think we have to take the spirit and intent of this ruling," he said, when it comes to candidate and initiative petitions alike.
Bell said he was aware of state lawmakers already looking at the issue.