Tuesday, May 31, 2016
  • By Michelle Quinn, mquinn@bayareanewsgroup.com
    East Bay Times

    Posted:Tue May 31 06:08:41 MDT 2016


    When it comes to the electoral process, technology is great for getting the word out.

    But it's another thing altogether when it comes to using technology to put candidates and initiatives on the ballot. The potential benefits of making the system easier, faster and more convenient have to be balanced against real concerns about fraud, debates about whether voters would face a crush of new initiatives and crowds of candidates, and whether technology will make the process more susceptible to special interests.

    But we are on the brink of change. This month, Facebook urged users to register to vote by providing a link from its platform to the secretary of state's website. More than 60 percent of the nearly 200,000 users who registered over two days were under 36, according to the secretary of state's office.

    It's high time for California to start thinking about moving beyond a paper-based system and finding ways to adapt to the Internet era.

    Change can be slow, as the case of Jonathan Padilla illustrates.

    Padilla, 27, a legislative director for San Jose Councilman Manh Nguyen, submitted more than the required number of signatures to qualify as a candidate for the Democratic Party's County Central Committee.

    When he delivered his papers to the Santa Clara County Registrar's office in March, he told Registrar Shannon Bushey that 19 of his signers used a pen. But the rest signed their names on a touch pad using technology from Allpoint Voter Services. Allpoint, co-founded by Democratic political strategist Jude Barry, transmits a person's touch-screen signature to a remote robotic pen, which writes that signature in ink on a paper version of the form.

    Padilla's problem? There appears to be no precedent for using touch screens with candidate papers. (In 2010, another company tried unsuccessfully in San Mateo County to submit signatures acquired on touch screens.)

    Bushey recalls someone in Padilla's group saying, "We are trying to make history." Her job is to verify signatures. She's not allowed to consider other factors, such as whether a technology is legit or not. She said it was impossible to tell which documents had been signed by touch screen and which by human hand. All had blue ink bleeding through the paper. She verified the signatures and put Padilla on the ballot.

    That's when Secretary of State Alex Padilla (no relation to Jonathan) stepped in and went to court to remove the candidate from the ballot. The state argues that candidate Padilla violated the California Election Code, which says signatures should be "personally affixed" on nomination forms. The Allpoint signatures, the state argues, were not "personally affixed," a requirement that dates back to 1933.

    Padilla came off the ballot. The secretary of state has sued the county and Padilla, seeking a judge's ruling that Allpoint technology violates the state election code and the state was correct in blocking Padilla. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Beth McGowen is set to hear the case next month.

    So you can sign a screen with your finger to pay for a cup of coffee or approve a loan document. And you can register to vote online (the state uses the information to take signatures from DMV records).

    But when it comes to signing a form to support a candidate for the ballot, it has to be a person, not a machine, putting ink to paper, the state says.

    The risks, according to the secretary of state, are real. Allpoint is a "novel, untested and unregulated digital technology" that raises concerns about "voter privacy, fraud prevention and integrity of the electoral process," the state's court papers say.

    Barry sees it differently. "We believe that technology can make politics and government easier and better," he says. "The only thing holding back an engaged citizenry is government's slow adoption of technology and resistance to change."

    Warren Slocum, former San Mateo County elections officer and now president of the board of supervisors, agrees. "The guy should be on the ballot," he said. "The entire California election code is modeled from a bygone era."

    I don't think it matters if the signatures were made by pen, finger or stylus, as long as they are legitimate and verified. The process allows local election officials to make the call about validity of signatures, which is precisely what Bushey did.

    In fact, theLegislature needs to revive something killed 19 years ago by then-Gov. Pete Wilson: a task force to study the creation of a digital electoral system. Wilson vetoed a bill that would have created a task force to look at the issue, worried that such a system "would compromise voter confidentiality and generate significant opportunities for fraud."

    We need that task force now.

    I'm not saying the Allpoint technology Padilla used is the answer.

    But we live in a world where touch screens on phones and tablets are more prevalent than pen and paper. The rules about "personally affixing" a signature to a paper seem archaic. The world has accepted that the finger can be a pen when it comes to putting our John Hancock on screen versions of important documents such as contracts and bank loans, even if our digital signatures lose some of their flair.

    If resisting technology is the government's default position, people like Jonathan Padilla and Allpoint should keep pushing.

    Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and mquinn@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/michellequinn.

    Election Milestones in California

    Then-Gov. Pete Wilson vetoes a bill that would have created a task force to study the creation of "a digital electoral system." 
    The First District Court of Appeal rules that signatures gathered for a ballot initiative on a touch screen and delivered on a thumb drive violated election voter signature laws. 
    The state allows people to register to vote online.