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Online petitions and e-signatures: Just a short step to 'American Idol'-style voting?

July 5, 2011 |  5:00 pm

SignaturesIt starts with your online signature on an initiative petition. Next thing you know, online petitions have replaced those people who stand in front of the supermarket with clipboards and hard-sell pitches to get you to sign up to back their ballot measure. Before you know it, we have electronic, and instant, direct democracy, with voters adopting or rejecting initiatives on their cellphones.

It could happen. In 2008, the Center for Governmental Studies published a report  noting how expensive it had become to pay signature-gatherers to get enough names to qualify an initiative for the ballot. Proponents have 150 days to get (on average) half a million signatures of voters who are registered in the county in which the petition is being circulated, and they pay about two bucks a signature to do it. Only rich folks, labor unions and corporations can afford to do that, which means that the petition process no longer demonstrates grass-roots support for a measure. The center's report suggests, as do others, that allowing online petitioning could bring the initiative process back to basics.

But other initiative reform proponents -- including some at the center -- warn that it's a short step between electronic petitioning and "American Idol"-style voting.

For the present, though, online petitioning won't cut it. The San Francisco-based First District Court of Appeal on Thursday upheld a trial judge's ruling that rejected an online signature for Proposition 19, last year's failed marijuana initiative. Proponents got enough valid signatures anyway, but the court took the appeal because the issue is sure to come up again.

According to a story in the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, the case originated with Michael Ni, one of the founders of a firm that developed electronic signature-gathering software. Ni submitted his signature on a USB flash drive to San Mateo County election officials, but it was rejected.

It's especially interesting to note who filed amicus briefs on appeal to support Ni -- and presumably, online signature-gathering. Amici include the Humane Society of the United States, the National Taxpayers Union, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and the Asian American Action Fund.

Bills currently before the Assembly propose less dramatic steps to curb the power of the signature-gathering industry. SB 448  would require paid signature-gatherers to wear badges so we could distinguish them from volunteers. SB 168  would bar the common practice of paying gatherers a bounty on signatures. They could be paid based on their time but not on their success.

Here at the Los Angeles Times editorial page, on the 100th anniversary of California's initiative system, we're grappling  with whether to support reforms  to the process or to leave things alone. One of the roadblocks to reform, of course, is that changes may well have to be accomplished by initiative -- and the complex of signature-gathering firms, political consultants and lawyers are pretty comfortable with things the way they are.


Is it time to reform California's initiative system?

One person, one click: Is your cellphone the new ballot?

California's initiative system: The gateway to citizen's rights?

--Robert Greene

Credit: Andrea Bloom 

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