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Net signature drive would set precedent

Launched in Washington state, the drive is the first in the nation to distribute petition forms entirely via the Internet.

An initiative signature drive launched this week in Washington state is the first in the nation to distribute petition forms entirely via the Internet--and state officials would set a precedent if they accept the petitions.

The initiative, sponsored by the Reasonable People's Campaign, would change state law so people found guilty of possession (as opposed to manufacture or sale) of any illegal drug could be sentenced to a treatment program but not prison. Possession of less than 40 grams (1.4 ounces) of marijuana would be a minor infraction punishable only by a fine.

The petition needs more than 180,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

It's the first time anyone has tried to use the Internet as the sole source of the petitions, political watchers say.

"This is actually the first I've heard of it, but it makes a lot of sense," says Amy Pritchard, president of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a nonprofit organization that tracks citizens' initiatives in the United States.

Supporters are asked to print petitions on their printers, add signatures, and then physically return the signed petitions by snail mail. This procedure does require handwritten signatures and should not be confused with digital signatures, a form of electronic communications that uses unique code numbers.

The organization's Web site has a step-by-step procedure describing how to print the petitions. Two separate documents must be printed using Adobe Acrobat software. To meet state requirements, the signature page must be printed back-to-back with a page containing the full text of the initiative.

Unfortunately for the campaign, state law says petitions must be printed on large, 11-by-14-inch sheets. Most computer users can print only on 8?-by-11-inch paper.

Citing U.S. Supreme Court decisions that enhanced signature-gathering rights, the campaign has asked the Washington secretary of state to allow the Internet petitions as an exception to the paper size rule.

Assistant secretary of state Don Whiting refused to say whether his department would accept them: "You can never say that ahead of time."

The deadline to submit signatures for this November's election is July 7. This gives the Reasonable People campaign a period of only one month to gather signatures after they launched their petitions on June 5. Since most signature drives take advantage of the full six-month period the state allows, you might wonder what the leaders of I-746 have been smoking.

Campaign manager Robert Lunday has a long-term view, however. He says the names and addresses of this year's signers can legally be used to mail them a new set of petitions next year, if the campaign does not meet its July 7 target.

"We also wanted especially to press the envelope with Internet petitions this year," Lunday said, before relying upon the method next year.

To distribute the petitions, the campaign does not plan to spam unrelated email recipients. Instead, instructions will be inserted into existing email bulletins that co-sponsoring organizations already send out to their members.

Reasonable People has also contracted with Aristotle Online to create banner ads that will be targeted at Web users statewide. Aristotle gained notice recently for its work on Internet advertising that helped fill Sen. John McCain's war chest in his recent Presidential primary campaign.

If Reasonable People's efforts are successful in gathering signatures inexpensively, a new cottage industry of e-businesses could spring up. Consulting firms that currently charge citizens' groups $1 per name to employ paid signature gatherers might switch to less costly Internet-based distribution.

As a result, more initiatives might appear on the ballot in the 24 states that permit them. The ballots might be longer to wade through--but some measures that might never raise a multi-million dollar budget will come before the voters anyway. And that's "grass" roots democracy.

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