COAST CITIES — Banks, grocery stores, the Department of Motor Vehicle offices.
These are a few places where signing your name electronically is a common occurrence. In the era of the iPhone, how about using online technology to qualify State initiatives on the ballot?
Taking the ink out of signatures is just one reform that will be discussed by experts of California’s initiative and referendum process at 2 p.m. Jan. 25 at the Dove Library in Carlsbad. Hosted by the League of Women Voters, the event is titled “Do We Have to Take This Much Initiative?”
As a preview of the discussion, several panelists who will be at the event, as well as a local political consultant, weighed in on whether electronic signatures are a good idea for the initiative process.
Those in favor say digital signatures could make it easier for grassroots organizations to put California propositions before voters. Critics, however, contend digital signatures would create too much direct democracy, essentially flooding the ballot with measures.
Robert Stern, a political scientist who founded the now defunct Center for Governmental Studies, said California established direct initiatives to give voters a chance to overrule unpopular decisions from the legislature. And they also serve the purpose of kicking the legislature into gear if it’s ignoring certain issues. But these days, grassroots groups often can’t mobilize enough support and collect the required 1 million signatures within the 150-day time limit. As such, only well-heeled interests have enough funds to hire paid-signature gatherers to qualify initiatives, Stern said.
“If you have enough money and you’re motivated, there’s a much better shot of you getting the item on the ballot,” Stern said. “These groups might not have the will of the people in mind.”
According to a 2008 study from the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies, the median cost to qualify an initiative increased from $45,000 in 1977 to $2.9 million in 2006.
Stern said digital signatures could make it more affordable for grassroots organizations to put initiatives on the ballot. But as a consequence, there could be an even greater number of initiatives for residents to parse and vote on.
“Voters already have a lot to take into account,” Stern said. “This could overwhelm them.”
Stern had two suggestions to protect against an avalanche of ballot initiatives. First, those who lend their John Hancock to an initiative online would have to answer three short questions about the measure. Further, he recommended allowing voters against the initiative to “downvote” or subtract from signatures.
Although gaining traction, it could be a few years or more until electronic signatures are part of the ballot process. Stern noted that recently courts have sided against digital signatures being used in statewide elections. Moreover, state election officials like Secretary of State Debra Bowen have said digital signatures currently present too many security concerns.
For digital signatures to move forward, Stern said it could take an initiative, not lawmakers’ efforts.
“I don’t see the legislature approving this,” Stern said. “They’re typically not in favor of the initiative process. It could require an initiative from voters for electronic signatures to become law.”
The paid-signature industry has opposed digital signatures, because it could damper business by driving down the price of signatures. Michael Arno, founder and president of Carlsbad-based Arno Political Associates, said his company is the only one in the industry that supports the movement.
In the last election, Arno Political Associates helped Propositions 37 and 33 qualify with paid-signature gatherers at places like grocery stores.
Yet Arno said digital signatures will help even the playing field.
“Whether it be a populist environmental group or taxpayer group, they don’t have the money,” Arno said. “Electronic signatures would empower them.”
And he countered those who say the electronic signatures would create too much direct democracy.
“The California legislature looks at 6,000 bills every year,” Arno said.
“We would be overloaded with 100, but don’t think a reasonable number of additional petitions would hurt anyone,” Arno added.
As for the companies that make money off paid signatures, Arno said they could actually benefit from digital signatures.
“A lot of industry people are scared about it,” Arno said. “I don’t know why, it may reduce how many you collect for an individual petition. But it will open up the door for a lot more petitions.”
Specifically, Arno cited Europe as an example. Digital signatures can be legally attached to initiatives in countries like Finland. But many grassroots groups have trouble converting enthusiasm for a cause into actual signatures, despite the process being more convenient for many. That’s where political consultants come in, he said.
“There’s a market that wasn’t there before,” Arno said.
Joe Mathews, author of the California Crackup, a book that advocates for ballot initiative and other reforms, said digital signatures are “nice, but not a game-changer.”
“This would make it somewhat cheaper for grassroots organizations to get signatures, which I applaud,” Mathews said.
But Mathews said California could benefit from also looking at a host of issues connected to initiative reform, including extending the 150-day time limit to give citizen-driven groups more time.
“In Switzerland they mull over initiatives for four years,” Mathews said. “For some reason we’re addicted to short elections where people aren’t adequately educated on what they’re voting for.”
Input during the event, and at similar events across the state, will aid the League of Women Voters in crafting possible reform recommendations for the initiative process.