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State unveiling system for online petition gathering

Arizona is preparing to launch a new signature-gathering system that will fundamentally change the way political candidates go about qualifying for the 2012 ballot.

Beginning Feb. 1, voters will be able go online to sign nominating petitions for candidates who want to run for statewide office and the Legislature.

The system, touted as the first of its kind in the nation, was developed by the Secretary of State’s Office, and will allow candidates to collect half of their qualifying signatures through the technology.

That means for the first time in state history, candidates, their supporters and volunteers will be able to significantly limit the time they spend in front of libraries, grocery stores and knocking on doors asking voters for their signatures.

The new system will also allow voters to give their $5 qualifying contributions to Clean Elections candidates.

“There is value in having candidates talk individually with voters and ask voters individually for their support through a signature that doesn’t cost any money,” said Derek Cressman, the Western states director for Common Cause. “It will be interesting to see how that changes the political culture.”

Matt Roberts, a spokesman for Secretary of State Ken Bennett, said a 50 percent cap was placed on electronic signatures so candidates will still go out and interact with their constituents.

His office was scheduled to give a demonstration of the new system to the Legislature on Jan. 20 and it is scheduled to go live Feb. 1.

“It’s going to be good,” said Roberts. “I think everyone is going to love it.”

Rep. J.D. Mesnard, a Chandler Republican who sponsored the 2011 bill creating the program, said the new system will allow candidates to spend more time campaigning and less time gathering signatures.

“This will allow me to focus on actually talking with the people I’m trying to get votes from,” Mesnard said. “I got 900 signatures myself last time going door to door and it was one of those things I had to do, so I did it, but I would much rather just been able to have a conversation with the person as opposed to focusing on ‘hey, can you sign this?’”

Roberts said that the system, dubbed E-Qual, is linked to the voter registration database, which will speed up the validation process for county recorders.

David Berman, a professor with ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said he believes challenges to petitions will become fewer since there is a built-in validation system.

“The normal part of a campaign is to challenge those signatures of your opponent,” Berman said. “Every election now it seems the first thing they try to do is avoid having to run against anyone. It’s the opposition that does the research to see if the signatures are right or if they’re in the wrong district or if the candidate himself had written all the names.”

Roberts said the infrastructure is being built to include municipal, county and even congressional candidates, and he expects them to be clamoring to join once they get a look at the system. The pilot program expires Dec. 31, 2014. Roberts said if the program is successful, then it can be expanded in future years, but that would take amending the legislation that created the system.

SECURITY

Roberts said the new system meets industry standards for security.

The Secretary of State’s Office has had EZ Voter, an online voter registration system, since 2002, and completed more than 4 million transactions without being compromised, said Craig Stender, a technician with the office who helped design the system.

Cressman said Common Cause opposes efforts at establishing online voting for privacy concerns, but those concerns aren’t present with online registration and signature-gathering.

“In general, this is the direction the world seems to be heading, and if done right can be more secure,” he said.

To sign a petition, a voter would go to the Secretary of State’s website and sign in with their driver’s license number. The voter would then be asked to verify their home address, which is only partially shown for security purposes.

A list of candidates seeking nominations in that voter’s district will then appear.

The candidate will know who signed the petition and will be required to print the signatures, which will be images from driver licenses, to submit with the signatures gathered in person.

Roberts said the electronic signatures will cut down on the time county recorders spend verifying signatures and the electronic petitions will be free of some of the problems that plague traditional ones, such as illegible entries.

INITIATIVES

The system does not accommodate citizen initiatives, which need hundreds of thousands of signatures.

While those in the business of getting citizens initiatives passed applaud innovations that could improve the electoral system, they are a bit suspicious of the politicians making it easier for themselves while leaving out ballot measures.

“There’s no question that many legislators are disenchanted with the constitutional provision that has been a part of Arizona since statehood — the citizen initiative process,” said Joe Yuhas, a partner with the consulting firm Reister.

Andrew Chavez, owner of Petition Partners, a petition management firm, said that over the last few years the Legislature has loosened controls over candidate petitions while not doing the same for ballot measures.

For example, candidates can fill out voter information on the petition while initiative circulators cannot, and candidate petitions don’t have to be notarized, while each sheet of a ballot measure petition has to be notarized.

Chavez said that collecting signatures for ballot measures only becomes more difficult because the sheer number of required signatures to qualify for the ballot continues to grow.

Mesnard said that probably isn’t a bad thing because the signature threshold on citizen initiatives is purposefully high, and if it wasn’t, then ballots could be overloaded with legislation.

The citizen initiative is for extreme circumstances when the Legislature fails or refuses to address an issue.

“We’re going to have a truck load of ideas, and then what’s our Legislature there for?” Mesnard said. “A few years ago we had like 20 and everyone was like, ‘oh my gosh, we have 20 of these things, I don’t know what they do.’”

Allowing ballot measures to electronically gather signatures has the potential to open the floodgates for a hundred or more measures on a single ballot, he said.

The most measures on a ballot was 19, which occurred in 2006, 1980, 1950 and 1914.

Yuhas said an overloaded ballot is not the result of a low signature threshold.

“It’s the result of a significant element of the electorate obviously demanding action on a measure that the Legislature all too often fails to address,” Yuhas said.

He conceded, however, that online signature gathering isn’t a make-or-break proposition because a well-organized effort will always manage to get an issue on the ballot.

Mesnard also discounted the theory that online signature gathering will reduce interaction between candidates and voters.

He said gathering signatures and campaigning are completely different interactions, because with signature gathering people are often uncomfortable providing their personal information to a stranger and most of the time is spent convincing the voter to sign.

“Some people said, ‘I’m not going to sign, but if you get on, I’ll vote for you,’” Mesnard said. “I said, ‘OK, what am I supposed to do with that?’”

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