Scarp: A ruling worth the paper it’s printed on - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Scarp: A ruling worth the paper it’s printed on

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Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at mscarp1@cox.net.

Posted: Saturday, July 21, 2012 6:57 am | Updated: 11:46 am, Mon Jul 23, 2012.

Paper or digital?

It’s a question facing the newspaper industry, all right, as it struggles to find the right balance for each form of news delivery as time marches forward.The people at the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, whose job is to validate petition signatures, know better than most of us that it won’t be long before a voter will be able to “sign” a petition using his or her smartphone, which would contain an authentic signature validated by the signer entering a password.

When that happens, petitions will be available digitally as well as on paper, giving voters a convenient choice. And not long after that, paper will not even be necessary.

So why was there a controversy last week over paper vs. digital in the first place?

Officials tossed out nearly 300,000 signatures by declaring one form as authentic when they should have realized that the answer is that either is. That decision landed them in court, where they lost last week.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Robert Oberbillig’s decision that put the initiative back on the November ballot was correct.

As Capitol Media Services’ Howard Fischer reported in last week’s Tribune, Oberbillig ruled that the Secretary of State’s Office was wrong to reject a petition because the paper copy of its text filed there left out language contained in an electronic copy that was also filed there.

Several years ago, Arizona courts would reject petitions, the valid will of hundreds or thousands of people, because of hair-splitting reasons such as not enough white space between the printed words and the edge of a petition’s pages, or slight deviations in the point size of the type used.

Since then our state’s courts have been steadily building a sizeable hill of precedents saying that the form of a ballot question doesn’t matter as much as its substance.

In this case, as Fischer reported, the judge ruled that language inadvertently left out of a paper filing that was contained in an electronic copy of the same document could have been easily fixed on the Secretary of State’s website, which had posted language taken from the incomplete paper filing.

And that’s where the judge continued recent precedent by picking substance over form. As Fischer reported, Oberbillig found no evidence was presented that any voter was misled by the missing language from the paper version that was posted on the website.

And again, the version voters saw just as they considered signing — the paper copies circulated statewide — had the entire text on them. This wasn’t the first recent example of government officials trying to assert that they have the power to decide what kind of document is proper and allowable.

In 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court determined that either form, paper or electronic, is valid regarding public records. The high court’s ruling in Lake v. City of Phoenix ordered that no longer could state and local agencies deny access to a record simply because it was inconveniently in electronic form and that printing out paper copies would take too much time, effort and money.

If a document is created electronically, it should be made available that way, the justices decided, or if it was created in paper form, it should be made available that way.

Both are valid ways of keeping records. One isn’t superior to the other. And it’s what the public reasonably understands, not what officials insist must fulfill rules requirements for their own sakes that should carry the day.

You may not support the initiative that is the subject of this controversy: To ask voters to extend a 1-cent sales tax due to expire next year to provide about $350 million annually, mostly to education. Plenty of questions exist to give a voter pause.

But this is one of those common sense questions that, thank goodness, a judge resolved using common sense.

Those presented with the opportunity to sign or not sign an initiative petition likely would care if the entire text weren’t available to them by the circular they encountered at their front door or in front of a library.

But they couldn’t care less if its entire text wasn’t posted on the Secretary of State’s website.

Reach Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp at mscarp1@cox.net.

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