Animal cruelty opponents and anti-tax activists may seem odd bedfellows, but both have thrown their support behind a San Mateo County man’s legal fight to allow California voters to sign ballot initiative petitions electronically using touch-screen devices.
The nationally watched case pits the county’s Elections Office against Redwood Shores resident Michael Ni, co-founder of Silicon Valley start-up Verafirma, which sued the county last year after it refused to accept an electronic signature Ni turned in to qualify the marijuana legalization initiative Proposition 19.
Ni turned in a USB drive containing a digital image of the initiative petition, complete with his signature captured using his finger, an iPhone screen and Verafirma’s software. Verafirma argues the signature is valid, saying the elections code does not require pen-and-paper signatures.
But the county, backed by a friend of the court brief from Secretary of State Debra Bowen, said Ni’s signature does not meet the elections code’s standards, including a section requiring it to be “personally affixed” to a petition, even though the county’s elections official said he supports the technology.
A San Mateo County Superior Court judge sided with the government in April, but Verafirma has collected legal backers of its own as it appeals that ruling to the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
In recent weeks, the Humane Society, the National Taxpayers Union, nationally known political consultant Joe Trippi and four other groups filed briefs supporting Verafirma’s technology.
Supporters say the technology could dramatically change California’s 100-year-old initiative process, providing a chance to connect with young or disengaged voters online using sites such as Facebook instead of through paid signature-gatherers standing in grocery store parking lots.
“This technology has an opportunity to really return the initiative process back to its original roots as a tool for grass-roots democracy and citizen empowerment,” said Jude Barry, a San Jose political strategist and another co-founder of Verafirma.
The technology could also reduce the expense of getting an initiative on the ballot, which Barry estimated could top $2 million for a state-wide signature-gathering campaign. He said Verafirma’s technology could drastically reduce that barrier, opening the door for grassroots ballot measures.
“It’s a huge issue of citizen access and voting rights,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, chief counsel for the Humane Society. “The net result is enhanced participation in the democratic process.”
Critics have raised concerns over the potential for fraud, though Verafirma said electronic signatures are already widely used at banks and stores and are more secure than the pen-and-paper variety.
County officials also believe “it’s not for the courts to decide as a policy matter whether electronic petitions are a good thing,” Deputy County Counsel David Silberman said. “It’s a decision for the legislature.”
Silberman expects the appeals judge to schedule oral arguments, possibly in the next few weeks.
Barry said voter initiatives have been used throughout American history as a check on legislative power.
“To suggest that the California legislature ought to weigh in in this matter would be contrary to the initial purpose of the initiative,” Barry said.
How Verafirma works
– A voter pulls up an initiative petition on Verafirma’s website using a PC or iPhone.
– After reviewing the petition and pro and con arguments, the voter types in their name, address and cell phone number
– A message sent to the voter’s phone takes them through screens to enter information via the device’s touch screen that must be handwritten by California law — name, signature, address and the date
– Copies of the electronically signed petition image are e-mailed to the sponsoring campaign and the voter