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Municipal Clerk can Accept Electronic Signatures

On November 30, 2021, the Appellate Division further enforced and upheld a new staple of the Covid-19 world: electronic signatures. In Township Of Montclair Committee of Petitioners et al. v. Township Of Montclair, et al., Docket No. A-2315-20, the Court considered a municipal clerk’s decision regarding electronic signature verification. The Court concluded that the clerk acted arbitrarily by failing to contact voters to confirm their votes prior rejecting their signatures due to the inconsistencies between electronic signatures and their pen-and-ink counterparts, particularly during Covid-19 when electronic signatures cannot be avoided.

Plaintiffs collected signatures in the Township of Montclair to challenge an ordinance adopting rent regulation provisions. N.J.S.A. 40:69A-184 requires the signatures of fifteen percent of the registered voter population to effectuate a petition for referendum. Plaintiff collected 1,528 electronic signatures. The township clerk rejected 168 signatures because the voter’s e-signature did not match the pen-and-ink signatures on record with the State of New Jersey Registration Voter System.

Plaintiff collected additional signatures, which the clerk also rejected. Due to the clerk’s rejection of certain signatures, Plaintiff did not have sufficient signatures to place the issue on the ballot. Plaintiff sought relief via verified complaint filed with the Superior Court, arguing that the clerk’s decision to reject certain signatures was arbitrary.

N.J.S.A. 40:69A-187 requires the clerk to “determine . . . whether the petition is signed by a sufficient number of qualified voters.” Yet, there is no statutory directive for the clerk to following in making his or her determination. New Jersey Courts have imputed a liberal standard for accepting signatures. Citing the 1968 opinion of Stone v. Wyckoff, 102 N.J. Super. 26, 34 (App. Div.1968), despite having been “written in a less complicated pen-and-ink world,” the Appellate Division reaffirmed that “absent significant variance between the signature in question and the signature in the voter registry,” there is a presumption of genuineness.

Indeed, the Montclair Township clerk acknowledged that signing a screen with a mouse or finger may look different from a pen-and-ink signature. While the clerk spent “many hours” analyzing the signatures, the Appellate Division identified a more effective way of spending that time: “reaching out to those voters for confirmation before taking the grave step of disenfranchising them.” Particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, which necessitated electronic signatures, the Court concluded that “the clerk’s failure to reach out to those voters whose e-signatures were, in the clerk’s view, doubtful or at variance with the voter registry was arbitrary and capricious.”

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