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Utah Legislature: Initiative backers to fight exclusion of electronic signatures

SALT LAKE CITY — Two groups pushing citizen initiatives say they will ask the Utah Supreme Court to overturn a decision by Lt. Gov. Greg Bell not to accept online signatures on their petitions.

"I think we will challenge this in court," said Glenn Wright, field director of Fair Boundaries, an initiative that would set up an independent commission to recommend to the Legislature redrawn boundaries of U.S. House, legislative and State School Board districts.

"The sooner the better" is how Kim Burningham puts his group's court challenge of the opinion issued by Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

Shurtleff says citizen initiative signatures must come in face-to-face contact and on paper petitions; signatures can't be gathered over the Internet.

Burningham is chairman of Utahns for Ethical Government, which is trying, as are other initiative groups, to get the 95,000 voter signatures required to get their measures before voters this November. The signature deadline is April 15.

The court challenge, which will likely be filed while lawmakers are still in their 45-day general session ending March 11, will add to the political intrigue of the 2010 Legislature.

Already there is talk of a political and legal fight should legislators put on the November ballot a constitutional amendment on setting up an independent legislative ethics commission.

A similar commission would be set up in statute — not in the state constitution — with the UEG initiative. Those two measures could also end up before the Utah Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, there is a move afoot in the Legislature to have the governor name the chief justice of the Supreme Court, as well as changes to the Judicial Conduct Commission, which is overseen by the high court.

Those issues could, critics claim, put political pressure on high court justices to come to some accommodation with the GOP-controlled Legislature.

And now the high court will decide an initiative signature issue — initiatives that are much hated and opposed by most legislators.

Burningham and Wright say Shurtleff's decision against electronic initiative signatures was expected.

"We're not surprised at all," said Wright, considering that various political establishment individuals and groups oppose the current initiatives. The Utah Republican Party opposes both initiatives, and two-thirds of legislators are Republicans.

But, Wright added, Shurtleff and Bell may have actually done initiative supporters a favor. First, the attorney general's opinion came quickly after Bell asked for legal advice, following initiative supporters' announcement several weeks ago that they would collect signatures on their Web sites. The swift opinion gives the high court time to rule before the April 15 signature deadline.

Second, the supporters can now fight in only one court action.

"We thought we'd have to (sue) all 29 county clerks" to get electronic signatures approved, Wright said. "Now, we only have to have one lawsuit," against the lieutenant governor's office.

Burningham couldn't say how many electronic signatures UEG has so far. The UEG Web site's signature ability only came up last weekend.

Wright said around 1,600 people had signed his petition online.

Both groups said they will now try to contact online signers and get them to sign the paper petitions — so their signatures will be valid if initiative organizers were to lose in court.

Burningham said his group wants online signatures "to help us be way over the top" in getting the 95,000 signatures required. He believes UEG could, and will, get 95,000 paper signatures by April 15.

Wright said online signatures would help his group reach the 95,000 goal, and he hopes the Supreme Court can quickly rule electronic signatures are legal.

Both men say their attorneys believe they have a strong case to make electronic signatures legal.

In his five-page opinion, Shurtleff said that the initiative law talks only about a "paper-based process" with written signatures, and that in adopting initiative law, legislators only approved in-person signatures for initiatives. In a kind of Catch-22, Shurtleff adds that online initiative signatures aren't valid because the state has no administrative rules detailing how they are to be collected to avoid voter fraud. But Utah Election Office officials say they didn't pursue writing such rules because they didn't know if online signatures were legal, and so they sought Shurtleff's opinion.

Steve Maxfield, an ethics initiative sponsor who has accused Shurtleff of violating campaign finance laws, contends the legal opinion is premature and a political ploy to scare people away from signing them online.

"I think it's wrong and I don't think the state's position will hold up in court," said Maxfield, adding that The Peoples Right will continue collecting online signatures.

Contributing: Associated Press