By Amanda Zoch
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began and consequently limited in-person signature gathering, I’ve often been asked: Which states allow electronic signatures for citizen initiative petitions? Until recently, the answer was none.
Now, it’s one. Under a new court judgment, Massachusetts has become the first state to allow citizen initiative campaigns to collect electronic signatures to qualify for the November ballot. (Note: 24 states permit citizens to place policy questions on ballots; other states may have legislatively referred ballot measures or advisory questions on their ballots.)
This is big news. But the change is temporary, and only applies to the four citizen initiative campaigns still active in the Bay State—other campaigns have already qualified for the ballot or been suspended.
Electronic signatures on petitions won’t be widespread anytime soon, though. In Arizona and Montana, courts have rejected initiative sponsors’ requests to gather signatures electronically.
Some states are implementing electronic methods—but not electronic signatures—to ease the burden that COVID-19 and physical distancing guidelines have placed on citizen initiative campaigns. In Utah, for example, sponsors can distribute petitions electronically. Although voters will still need to provide a wet (not electronic) signature, they can return the signed petition by fax or email.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) recently issued several executive orders making similar accommodations, such as allowing the electronic distribution and return of petitions and waiving the requirement that a circulator must witness the voter’s signature. (Polis’s orders are the subject of two lawsuits and may change.)
Many campaigns, however, continue to advocate for electronic signatures. Groups, such as Fair Maps Nevada, have filed lawsuits seeking to use electronic signatures, and one campaign in Michigan—Fair and Equal Michigan—is collecting electronic signatures even though the Department of State has not yet determined if it can accept them.
With these decisions up in the air, it’s possible that Massachusetts won’t be the lone state to allow voters to electronically sign citizen initiative petitions in 2020.
Amanda Zoch is an NCSL policy specialist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.