Can you use your iPhone to sign an initiative petition? A northern California-based company, Verafirma, has developed an application that makes it possible. But is it legal? Is it secure? These are the questions that remain unanswered. Election officials will need to start figuring it out soon, though, because the proponents of an initiative seeking to legalize marijuana use in California have submitted their petitions for verification, and the batch includes a smattering of signatures submitted not on piece of paper, but on thumb drives that display the initiative petition along with an image of a voter's signature captured when the voter wrote that signature on his or her iPhone screen using the Verafirma app.
And it's not just an image of a signature - it's something called "signature dynamic" that captures the pressure, speed and other special characteristics of the signature-in-the-making. This data can also be used for verification purposes - however, I do not believe the 58 county registrar offices have that technology in-house at this time. The counties that received these thumb drives have to either accept or reject the signatures on them. If they are rejected then there will likely be a legal battle and/or a legislative effort to change the law.
The advantages of collecting initiative signatures using iPhones or other kinds of personal digital assistants (PDAs) are substantial, especially if you have an initiative that is likely to attract grassroots support. Using PDAs to sign initiatives will allow for more successful viral marketing campaigns and can lower the cost for qualifying an initiative, which experts estimate is a minimum of $1 million, even for the most grass-rootsy of measures.
The technology may also lend itself to voter registration, which is currently an all-paper affair in California. Although the Secretary of State is aiming to create an online voter registration process, it is not likely to be up and running for several more years. From an election officials' point of view, it will likely be far easier to verify petitions or registration forms that come in a digital format because the information on them is more accurate and easier to read, and it will also greatly reduce the number of paper petitions that get submitted, thus saving paper.
The downside? From a voter's perspective, it may make initiatives easier to qualify so we may end up with even more measures on the ballot, which can overwhelm voters. There are also potential security and privacy risks that must be addressed. How does the voter know that a company collecting their information and signature image isn't storing it somewhere to use later for commercial or fraud purposes? How do you know the initiative you are signing is the actual one you want to sign and not an imposter petition? These kinds of questions typically get worked out during legislative and regulatory proceedings. But in this case, as in so many other instances in the past 16 years*, public policy has not kept pace with technology.
And we know from experience where that can lead. Remember electronic voting? It was so appealing to the registrars -- no more paper ballots, a fast, accurate count. The problem was there was no transparency or accountability either. California spent hundreds of millions of dollars on 40,000 paperless, electronic voting machines that ended up later being replaced with paper-voting systems or retrofitted with printers to produce a paper trail. We learned an expensive lesson -- paper is low-tech and perhaps not what's best for the environment, but in an election process marked by a tangle of procedures and varying degrees of technical sophistication in county election offices and at polling places, paper is the safest, most transparent method for transacting ballots.
Of course, voter registration forms and initiative petitions are not the same as ballots. While they are in the same "class" of transactions, they are fundamentally different; a ballot is secret, and your name is not allowed to be on your ballot. Once you cast a ballot it must be anonymized, mixed with other ballots and never tied back to you. These rules are what keep the ballot secret. But initiative petitions and voter registration records are public records, and election officials must know the names and addresses of people who sign and submit them. Signatures must be visible and verifiable. Consequently, I am cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the iPhone initiative petition application. But first, election officials will need to figure out how to protect the security of these transactions and the privacy of the information contained in them.
For more on this topic, tune in to the Capitol Public Radio's Insight show today, hosted by Jeffrey Callison, where I will be a guest along with Sacramento county Registrar of Voters Jill Lavine and Steve Churchwell, counsel for Verafirma. The show starts at 10 a.m. at 90.9 FM in Sacramento or online at www.capradio.org.
For additional details, take a look at this article by Ken McLaughlin from earlier this month in the San Jose Mercury News.
* Incidentally, I mention "the past sixteen years" above because it marks the time when I took up my role as the head of the California Voter Foundation, and today happens to be my sixteen year anniversary on the job. It has been a phenomenal experience watching, and participating in the changes technology has brought to the democratic process! I look forward to the challenges ahead.