SALT LAKE CITY — The attorney for sponsors of an initiative petition drive aimed at ethics reform expects to challenge a new rule allowing the sponsors to gather electronic signatures, calling it more of a hurdle than a help.

Utahns for Ethical Government failed to collect enough voter signatures — electronic or physical — to qualify for this November's general election but continues to circulate petitions in the hopes of getting on the 2012 ballot. However, Lt. Gov. Greg Bell's office has said the question of whether initiative signatures gathered for one election can be used to qualify for another election will likely end up in court.

The new rule requires that sponsors of statewide initiatives or referendums use an "electronic packet" created by the lieutenant governor's office and that a person electronically signing a petition shall do so in a petition circulator's presence.

To UEG attorney Alan Smith, that sounds like UEG petition circulators would now be allowed to have a computer with them in front of grocery stores if they want to collect electronic signatures.

"E-signatures, of course, are gathered over the Internet, but this rule, in practical effect, doesn't permit any use of the Internet for gathering e-signatures," Smith said Friday.

Mark Thomas, office administrator for Bell, said the rule reiterates state law, and that petition circulators have the same obligations to verify that registered voters are signing petitions, whether on paper or electronically.

Thomas said he disagrees with Smith's idea that petition sponsors are limited to gathering signatures in public with a computer.

"I think there are other possibilities out there they could explore, and we'd be willing to look at," Thomas said.

Thomas suggested that online video phone call service Skype could be part of the process that would let petition circulators see the person signing a petition.

Other methods may be available online, as well, Thomas said, adding that the office is willing to work with petition sponsors to ensure integrity in the petition process.

UEG maintains that its method should be sufficient and argues that many government and corporate functions already accept e-signatures without witnesses.

Visitors to UEG's website may register to sign by giving their name, birthdate, address and e-mail address. Then, they are directed to an electronic version of the petition with instructions to check two boxes stating "I agree" to verify their signature.

UEG filed a friend of the court brief pushing for e-signatures to count for initiatives and petitions during the recent Utah Supreme Court case of Anderson v. Bell. The court ruled in June that unaffiliated gubernatorial candidate Farley Anderson's name should be on the ballot come November. Anderson had submitted some e-signatures as part of his petition to get on the ballot, and Bell had disallowed them.

The court did not address e-signatures for initiatives and petitions, but the ruling prompted Bell's office to create the rule.

On Saturday, UEG blasted the new rule as "an unauthorized exercise of authority" by Bell.

The group's chairman, Kim Burningham, said the rule "demonstrates the lengths to which state officials will go to thwart UEG's ongoing petition drive."


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