The rapid rise and evolution of the internet has fundamentally altered many aspects of our modern life. The way we interact with each other, the way business is conducted, and even the way we get our news and information has been changed by the internet and social media’s ability to instantly connect us to almost anyone in the world. Ideas can be shared, opinions voiced, and issues discussed with both friends and strangers alike through the stroke of a key. We now have the ability to connect with others and find common cause over issues and ideals that once would be barred by geographic limitations on communication. Computers are being made smaller, faster, and even being integrated into wearable objects like watches and glasses so we never have to be too far from the internet. The ability to reach millions of people instantly is being utilized in new and different ways by groups trying to disseminate their ideas and promote their agendas. How far should the amazing new ability for every individual to voice his or her opinion on the internet stretch into the realm of election law?
In states like Maryland, the power of the people to shape the laws of their state is growing, thanks in part to the internet. Maryland is one of 27 states that have some form of referendum or initiative statute allowing the people to have direct say in the laws of the state. According to the Maryland State Board of Elections, “An act of the General Assembly can be placed on the 2016 General Election ballot by the submission of petitions containing at least 51,995 signatures of Maryland registered voters.” With a population close to six million, this might seem like a small number. But collecting the required number of petition signatures can prove very challenging. The Maryland referendum legislation has only been used thirteen times since it was passed in 1915. Websites like MDPetitions.com seek to change this statistic by allowing for greater access to the state’s ballot initiative process through online petitions. Maryland allows petitions to be posted on websites and valid signatures collected as long as the downloaded signature page is in the proper format and contains the required information. MDPetitions.com claims to have devised an on-line system to overcome the “hurdles” initiative sponsors must jump to collect valid signatures in order to meet the state mandated minimum requirements. MDPetitions.com contends that their system “captures the specific information of each voter from the Board of Elections so that there is no room for error. People wishing to sign the petitions now have a central place on-line to get their own petition form, without wasting time trying to locate a local petition site.” This innovative approach to government by the people is not without its critics.
Opponents to this process argue that sites like MDPetitions.com make it too easy for people to overturn laws enacted by their elected representatives in the state legislature and anonymity on the web makes enforcing other state statutes more difficult. These arguments could be dismissed as the rantings of power hungry incumbents dead set on maintaining their strangle hold on power or the ravings of Luddites attempting to stand in the way of progress, but there is something to be said for the distinction between signing ones name in person and clicking a button on the computer. Opponents to the Maryland process of allowing petitions to be signed online claim that electronic signatures or e-signatures of online petitions are the most basic form of assent, which is much less powerful and carries less weight than actually signing a document or petition. A new study conducted by Eileen Chou, a researcher of leadership and public policy at the University of Virginia, found that “although people judged e-signatures to be functionally the same as hand signatures, they evoked strikingly different psychological reactions.” Chou found that participants reacted negatively toward documents containing e-signatures when asked to evaluate a document’s validity or when indicating how strongly they perceived the signer’s presence in the document and the likelihood of the contract being broken. The study also found that people are more likely to be honest and less likely to cheat when required to provide handwritten signatures rather than e-signatures. When it comes to something as important as state law referendum, opponents to online petitions claim a major way to prevent fraud and ensure the integrity of the legislative process is to require handwritten signatures on ballot petitions.
Despite the persistent argument that nothing stops someone from creating dozens of identities and signing an online petition over and over again, the Maryland statute allowing for online petitions appears firmly rooted. While Maryland law still prohibits online voting, it has certainly taken a small step to expand the use of technology in the realm of election law. One last thing to consider, how many times have you clicked agree to the Apple iTunes Terms and Conditions service agreement without reading a single word?