Initiative and referenda consultants see potential in efforts to promote the collection of verified signatures online.
Petition drives don’t have a long history of success in the state of Maryland—especially those spearheaded by Republicans. But state Delegate Neil Parrott (R) opted for an out-of-the-box way to collect the signatures he needed last month in his fight to repeal a new state law: He built his own software program to help collect valid signatures online. Parrott is leading an effort to repeal a state version of the “Dream Act,” which passed the Maryland House of Delegates this spring and gives in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants. Rather than relying exclusively on gaining signatures outside the local grocery store or canvassing door-to-door, Parrott collected about a third of his total signatures on the Internet using software that can access voter registration data to ensure the validity of the signature. “My goal was to try and reduce the number of signatures we throw out,” says Parrot. “That’s the idea of this website.” Through the site, which Parrott promoted extensively on talk radio to reach Republicans in the state, voters were able to plug in their information and generate a legally accurate petition sheet. They still had to print it out, add their John Hancock and mail the form to the campaign, but the process dramatically cut down on errors. Parrott gained enough signatures to halt implementation of the law and now Maryland voters will have the final say when they head to the polls next November. The software could make it much easier to get referenda on ballots across the country—potential that has consultants who work on initiative and referendum campaigns intrigued. Harold Hubschman, who heads Spoonworks, Inc., a firm that specializes in signature and voter registration drives, calls the online technique “a terrific idea” and thinks it’s an effective way to bring the process “into a new arena … in a way that you can’t if it’s just guys with clipboards [collecting signatures].” It certainly won’t work everywhere, acknowledges Hubschman, who notes the issue in question “has to be something that really is hot, that really catches people’s attention.” But it’s also a mechanism for political organizations to build a base. If voters go out of their way to fill out, print and then mail their petition signature, the quality of the signers is better, meaning a richer database to call upon down the road. The online process has its detractors, though. The Maryland Civil Liberties Union cried foul, claiming that the online-enabled method opens the door for fraud. It’s an argument Parrott rejects out of hand, arguing that small-scale fraud can be just as easily committed in person. Hubschman agrees, noting that the computer’s IP address acts as a safeguard against large scale fraud as does requiring the voter’s date of birth on the website. While Parrot’s software still requires a pen and paper signature, some states are looking to move the process entirely online. In Utah, which already has an online voter registration system, the state Supreme Court ruled that electronic signatures are permitted under the state’s election code. And despite some opposition to electronic signatures, Utah’s lieutenant governor recently asked state lawmakers to look into how e-signatures could be used for ballot initiatives. Just two states over in California, however, a court ruled against electronic petition signatures, leaving it up to legislators to decide the fate of e-signatures in the Golden State. As for Parrott’s efforts, he’s hopeful the online method will continue to spread to other states. “It’s just a better way to help people dot the I’s and cross the T’s so their signature will be counted when they turn it in,” he says.