The Utah Legislature has approved a bill that would ban electronic signatures on ballot measures or to qualify candidates for elections.
The move would reverse a Supreme Court ruling last year that forced the lieutenant governor to include Farley Anderson's name on the ballot after his independent gubernatorial campaign gathered signatures online.
It also could be a blow to Utahns for Ethical Government, which sought to have e-signatures counted in its effort to get a wide-ranging ethics initiative on the ballot next year.
"Why do we have to keep closing down the doors? Why not let the public, on occasion, when they've worked very hard, get an initiative on the ballot?" asked Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek. "This is just one more step to make it very, very difficult."
But Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, the House sponsor of the bill, said he is trying to protect the integrity of the election process.
"It's important that we make sure the people signing those [petitions] are the people who those signatures belong to," Daw said. "It's very, very easy to hack into and put false signatures in [a petition]."
To put the needed security in place, he said, would cost millions.
The bill now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert. Because it passed both the House and Senate with a two-thirds majority, it would take effect immediately upon his signature.
Backers of Utahns For Ethical Government, who had gathered electronic signatures in an effort to get their sweeping ethics initiative on the ballot in 2012, contend the law doesn't affect them because they had started the process before SB165 passed.
But the law imposes onerous new requirements on the initiative process, said UEG attorney and former state legislator David Irvine.
"They really raise the bar on initiative processes and they make it virtually impossible for a citizens initiative done on a volunteer basis to ever succeed," said Irvine. "What the Legislature really has done is strip away a constitutional right that every Utah voter possesses. A very impressive performance and they did it in the sneakiest way possible."
He said that, in addition to eliminating electronic signatures as an option, the bill seeks to shorten the time period citizens have to collect initiative signatures and piles on additional administrative burdens.
"I don't think there's any way an initiative effort could possibly be successful under these circumstances," Irvine said. "They are dead in the water."
Steve Maxfield, who was Anderson's lieutenant governor running mate in 2010, said the Legislature has created a second "exclusive" definition of a signature one for elections and a different one for everything else. He said it is ironic that lawmakers sought to change open-records laws in order to protect their own use of technology while depriving voters of the ability to employ technology.
"For the legislators, they can do whatever they want under the cloud of darkness from their iPhones or whatever, but the citizens of the state of Utah are stuck in the stone age," he said. "The practical effect is it tells the citizens to shut up and sit down and stay at the back of the bus."