Backers of the citizen initiative Utahns for Ethical Government will likely go back to court because Lt. Gov. Greg Bell won’t be counting the electronic signatures on their legislative ethics petition.
“Ours will not be counted” under a new rule on e-signatures to be drafted by Bell’s office, UEG attorney Alan Smith told UtahPolicy.com Tuesday.
In fact, Bell’s office may decide to count only future e-signatures. State officials say they must formally adopt an administrative rule detailing how e-signatures are dealt with. And if that rule is not in place by Aug. 12 – the deadline for UEG voter signatures to make the 2012 ballot -- then it is unclear how UEG e-signatures could be treated.
If Bell doesn’t count UEG’s e-signatures, it means petition-backers go back to court “pretty soon,” said Smith. That would be back to the Utah Supreme Court, not the U.S. Supreme Court.
Actually, in a rare jurisprudence coincidence, both high courts recently issued rulings that apply to issues involving UEG – a citizen group that this spring failed to get the needed voter signatures for their legislative ethics measure to get on the 2010 November ballot. But UEG supporters still hope to make an Aug. 12 deadline to get their petition on the 2012 ballot.
The state Supreme Court said that electronic signatures gathered by an independent candidate attempting to get on the Utah ballot this November must be counted by the state Lieutenant Governor’s Office. (That office doesn’t technically count the signatures, local county clerks do, but the LG must include the candidate’s e-signatures – signed on his web site -- in determining if the candidate otherwise qualifies for the ballot).
And the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case not directly involving UEG, ruled the names of citizens who sign initiative petitions are public records – and so can not be withheld.
Leaders of the Utah Republican Party – which strongly opposes the UEG legislative ethics initiative – are deciding if they want to start a formal effort to get Utahns – especially registered Republicans – who signed the petition to take their names off.
The 2010 Legislature, controlled by Republicans, passed a law that says any petition signee has 30 days after the petition is turned in to formally ask that his or her name be removed, and the state must do so.
That fight can wait a bit, however.
The big issue right now for UEG is getting around 10,000 e-signatures, that supporters have collected on the UEG web site, counted as part of the 95,000 needed to make the 2012 general election ballot. The UEG must also get 10 percent of the voters’ signatures in 26 of 29 state Senate districts. And in districts that barely met that qualification, if GOP officials can get just a few dozen or hundred signatures removed, that could mean defeat for UEG.
UEG has already failed to get those needed signatures by a mid-April deadline to make it on the 2010 ballot. Now supporters look to an Aug. 12, one-year deadline to make it on the 2012 ballot.
(There is a whole other fight over that deadline. UEG officials say it is clear in state law that petition sponsors have 12 months to gather signatures once the petition is first filed with the state; while another part of the code says there is an April deadline to get the measure on the upcoming general election ballot. So opponents – which include GOP legislators – say since the April deadline was missed, the petition is basically dead and the Aug. 12 deadline – the 12 month date – can’t apply, even for 2012.)
Bell is, again, seeking advice from GOP Attorney General Mark Shurtleff over whether the Utah Supreme Court ruling on e-signatures applies to citizen initiatives or only the specific candidate in that case. Utah Elections Office officials say they have no rule, no procedure, to count e-signatures. And they need that rule before they can proceed.
LG officials met Monday afternoon and decided to “draft a rule as to how to count” electronic signatures, said Deputy Lt. Gov. Paul Neuenschwander. He declined to be more specific until a formal letter from the AG’s office is sent to UEG officials.
Smith said he talked Tuesday morning with the AG’s office, and was told that while the e-signature rule would be written, “it would not count our signatures – which I see as a political effort to block our initiative.”
UEG filed a friend of the court brief in the candidate e-signature case, but the state high court declined to rule on whether Bell must count UEG e-signatures, keeping its ruling only to the candidate e-signature issue – where it ruled that an e-signature is as good as “pen to paper” signature.
Meanwhile, several legislators are criticizing the Utah Supreme Court’s ruling and promising legislation in the 2011 session that will clarify the electronic signatures issue.
Smith said UEG will ask the Utah Supreme Court to specifically instruct Bell’s office to accept that initiative petition’s e-signatures.