By Curt Bramble
Utah Senator, District 16
In praising Utahns for Ethical Government’s ill-advised initiative [pdf] and casting me, the Lt. Governor and members of the Utah Legislature as “unethical enablers” opposed to reform, the Standard-Examiner missed a number of important points.
First, far from opposing electronic signatures, I enthusiastically support them. My only concern is that the signature-gathering process be sound, verifiable and fraud-free.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported that at least one e-signature originating from a state IP address was fraudulent. And if one signature can be fraudulent, so can others. Unfortunately, UEG asked a federal judge to seal the signature list, so nobody could check. Now that the Supreme Court has killed the UEG initiative, the matter is moot and the list will likely never be released.
To address possible fraud, a legislative solution was needed. I sponsored SB-165 in 2011 to prohibit the use of e-signatures temporarily — not for some nefarious motive but simply because Utah needs a way to protect the integrity of its process. I made my intentions clear in my speech on the Senate floor. Once Utah puts sound mechanisms into place, we should move forward quickly with e-signatures. They promise to bring many more voters into the political process who don’t now participate.
In the 2012 session, I sponsored a resolution directing the Lt. Governor to study the issues and to find a sound way to enable e-signatures for initiatives. Security is clearly needed for these grassroots measures.
But even greater benefits could flow from the study. It could contain the seeds that lead us to e-voting in general elections. If Americans can do their banking and commerce securely online, we ought to be able to vote, too.
The Standard-Examiner accuses me of impeding ethics reform and being an “unethical enabler” because SB-165 changed the baseline for the number of signatures required to qualify an initiative. It uses voter turnout for a presidential election, which is generally highest. But there’s a good reason: This bill was not designed to obstruct, or to raise the bar after the jump; it was designed to create consistency.
Under the law then in place — which UEG tried to exploit — the baseline for signatures was the number of votes in a general election for governor. UEG argued it was ambiguous as to which type of gubernatorial election would be used — a regular general election or a special election such as the one held after Gov. Jon Huntsman resigned to become ambassador to China.
Voter turnout for special elections is dismally low, historically — only 5-8 percent in many places. Using the special election won by Gov. Herbert as the baseline would place the bar too low. No wonder UEG filed suit.
That is no way to run a government by the people — requiring some initiatives to have fewer signatures after a special election and others to have more following a regular election. SB-165 adjusted the baseline to reflect turnout in a presidential-year election, consistent with the original intent of the law.
If the number of signatures required for a ballot initiative is now “ridiculous,” as the Standard-Examiner charges, let’s have that debate. But the first order of business is to keep our principles straight. A sliding scale for signatures is not better than consistency. Variability allows just the sort of political mischief that UEG has been seeking to impose.
My central focus has always been to protect the integrity of the political process from the buffetings of self-interested parties. I believe we’re on the right path.
It is true that the UEG ethics initiative helped motivate the Legislature to pass meaningful ethics reform in 2010. I helped develop the strong reforms we passed. They achieved what was needed while avoiding the dangerous and likely unconstitutional pitfalls of the UEG proposal, which, among other things, would have created an all-powerful secret combination that would operate without any oversight at all — not even from the courts. Imagine the outrage of the Standard Examiner had this star-chamber proposal come from the Legislature.
Judicial review of literally everything government does should never be taken away. It’s an essential check and balance for the people. And so is a verifiable, fraud-free process for collecting and counting e-signatures.
Originally published August 6, 2012, in the Standard Examiner.