Secretary of State Betty Ireland is the first woman in West Virginia's history to be elected to the executive branch of government.

"Can you imagine that -- 147 years we've been sending Caucasian males to run the government here," said Ireland with a mix of humor and indignation.

Not only has Ireland broken the gender barrier, but since January 2005, she's also helped the state clear some technological roadblocks by bringing the Mountain State up to par with the digital age.

Some of Ireland's e-government initiatives include an online financial reporting system for political campaigns (she hopes to mandate electronic campaign filings for statewide candidates in 2008), and online submissions of public meeting notices. A computer program flags meeting agendas that don't comply with the state's Sunshine Laws, she said.

But during her two-year tenure, the former public school teacher and executive in the pension business has pursued the e-signature issue with the most passion.

While the Legislature validated the use of e-signatures for financial documents in the late 1990s, a 2001 Senate bill invested certificate authority for e-signatures with the Secretary of State's Office, which hindered the state's ability to invest in the technology due to the lack of funding, Ireland said.

"While there was a lot of e-technology on the federal and state level, West Virginia was trying to climb on the bandwagon, but never had the money to fund it," she said.

Ireland acted when she came to office -- she used the free, federal Access Certificates for Electronic Services program for funding, and pushed a bill through the Legislature that allowed a federal agency-approved vendor to be the certificate authority and develop the necessary software.

In April 2006, the state Department of Environmental Protection, with help from the governor and Secretary of State's Office, rolled out an e-signatures application for use in its permit process. Other agencies have since expressed interest in the application, she said.

"The Department of Motor Vehicles is knocking down our door, practically," Ireland said, adding that her hope is that, in the future, the use of e-signatures will expand. "We'd like to have Web and Windows applications, and use it with mobile devices and smart cars. We don't want this to be someone at an office having to sit at a PC to make this work."

Ireland said her goal is to bring the state's aging legislative code into harmony with emerging e-government technology -- just as she's brought the state into the 21st century by breaking gender norms.

"We're constantly asking the Legislature to make changes to the language in our West Virginia code so that the law matches the technology."

Jessica Weidling  |  Staff Writer