Electronic petition-signing off to a tenuous beginning

A Silicon Valley startup is looking to give the clipboard-and-paper strategy for collecting petition signatures a 21st-century makeover.

Verafirma is promoting technology to collect and verify signatures for initiative petitions using smart phone devices, such as iPhones and Google Droids, iPod Touches and computers.

Supporters say the change could revolutionize California's initiative process, enabling proponents to launch low-cost, grass-roots and Web-based campaigns to qualify for the ballot.

But the e-signature software has come under fire from critics, including the secretary of state, who say the digital petitions don't meet Election Code requirements and pose risks for fraud and privacy violations. And the effort recently suffered a legal blow when a judge indicated that he was inclined to reject a test petition submitted by a company founder.

Relying on the same technology used by banks and other institutions that accept digital signatures, Vera- firma allows voters to use a touch screen to enter their John Hancock on a digital version of the initiative petition that is then submitted to county election officials for approval.

Developers say a driving force behind the idea is to lower the price for qualifying a measure for the ballot. Nearly all successful qualification efforts now rely on firms that charge $1 to $5 per signature to collect up to 694,354 valid voter signatures needed to secure a spot on the ballot.

"This can make it affordable for true grass-roots efforts that don't have access to the initiative game the way it's played now because it's so costly," said co-founder and Democratic consultant Jude Barry, who said using the technology would require "a fraction of the cost" of hiring a signature-gathering firm.

California Voter Foundation President Kim Alexander said the tool could spread the reach of campaigns while providing voters with more access to information about what they are signing.

"If it catches on, people can go and submit their signatures without having access to an actual physical initiative petition or waiting for a chance encounter to meet an initiative signature gatherer in a supermarket parking lot," Alexander said.

"(It) would enable people who use iPhones to take their time and research the measure on their own schedule." But Alexander, whose organization promotes the use of technology to improve the democratic process, also pointed to an array of security concerns, including how to ensure that an e-signature isn't copied onto multiple petitions without a voter's consent.