Ballot Initiatives Online - California; Radio (Jackie Dove, SF

Peace though Reason (
Fri, 05 Feb 1999 06:41:42 -0500

        Internet May Reshape California Ballot Initiatives

        By REBECCA FAIRLEY RANEY, New York Times, February 5, 1999  

        LOS ANGELES -- These days, Californians are
        hard-pressed to enter a grocery store without
        hearing the cry, "Sir! Ma'am! Can I get your signature?
        Are you registered to vote?" Shoppers are regularly
        accosted by signature collectors, aggressive pitchmen
        who get paid by the name. They are the by-product of a
        high-priced ballot initiative system that has outgrown its
        intent to defeat the influence of special interests in

        Now, if high-tech political activists have their way,
        these sidewalk hawkers may eventually be replaced by
        the Internet as a means to collect the hundreds of
        thousands of signatures required to get a measure on the
        California ballot. 

        When the state's ballot initiative
        system was created at the turn of the
        last century, the notion of requiring 5
        percent of the state's electorate to
        sign a petition reflected a reasonable

        At the turn of the next century,
        however, that 5 percent amounts to
        more than 400,000 people. As it
        stands, sponsors of initiatives must
        spend at least an estimated $1 million just to collect
        signatures -- a cost that's hardly the hallmark of a
        populist tool. Allowing people to sign petitions on the
        Internet could lower that cost substantially, by
        eliminating he need for all the legwork. 

        "It would bring the initiative process back to what it's
        supposed to be, rather than the big-money interests,"
        said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter
        Foundation, a nonprofit group in Sacramento. 

        In an effort started recently, Tim Draper, a Silicon
        Valley venture capitalist, had hoped to collect signatures
        on the Internet for an education-related initiative he is
        sponsoring. His plans were thwarted by the fact that
        politics has not caught up with technology. Now, Draper
        is planning meetings with California's Secretary of State,
        Bill Jones, to press the issue. 

        "We are actively pursuing it," said Barry Hutchison,
        spokesman for Draper's venture.
        "We see it as a logical progression as the way society is
        doing more and more activity." 

        Despite that Silicon-fueled optimism, the notion of
        collecting signatures on the Internet faces substantial
        political hurdles before it can become reality. 

        Jones said allowing people to sign petitions with digital
        signatures would require an act of the Legislature. Jones
        is currently assembling a commission to develop
        recommendations for the Legislature on that issue as
        well as the concept of allowing Californians to cast
        ballots via Internet. It will not be an easy issue to tackle
        for a large state with a burgeoning political system. 

        "There's no question we're moving in that direction,"
        Jones said in a recent phone interview. "There's going to
        have to be a watershed change of attitude in the

        The notion of seeking help  from the Legislature is  problematic in
itself. The
         Legislature has historically   been at odds with the  initiative
process, which is
         designed to bypass  legislators' authority. 

         Jones anticipates that the  issues surrounding online security and
whether systems
         would identify individual voters will prove to be tricky in the

        "I have not been able to successfully get through even
        an identification at the polls bill in the Legislature,"
        Jones said. 

        Advocates for ballot initiatives in California can
        currently set up Web sites in which voters can download
        and print petitions, then sign them and mail them to the
        authorities, but the handful of groups that have tried this
        method have met with little success because of the effort
        required by the user. 

        But if the hurdles are cleared to allow people to sign
        petitions online with digital signatures, many agree that
        the accessibility of the Internet could pump new life into
        California politics. 

        "The rise of the Internet in initiative campaigns would
        revolutionize the initiative process," said Frank
        Schubert, a partner in Goddard Claussen, a political
        consulting firm with offices in Sacramento, Malibu and
        Washington, D.C., that handles ballot measures across
        the country. "It allows you to do things very rapidly." 

        Schubert predicted that in 10 years, if the Internet could
        be used to collect signatures, it would take two weeks to
        qualify an issue for the ballot. Now, he said, it can take
        a year. 

        "Ten years from now, if the law catches up with
        technology, it will be a vastly different world," he said. 

        On its face, that notion could be threatening to those who
        make a living in the current system, but Schubert said it
        would create more business for political consultants
        because it would create more ballot measures. 

        "The real expertise comes in with the conduct of the
        campaign after the initiative qualifies," he said. "More
        initiatives is not a bad thing, from where I sit." 

        In fact, the Internet makes it easier not only to collect
        signatures, but also to organize constituencies at low
        cost -- which further breaks the lock on the process held
        by big- money interests. 

        "If there's a cause out there that's very compelling,
        people will go to the trouble to tell people about it,"
        said Alexander of the California Voter Foundation. "If
        you have a compelling issue, then you can create a base
        of support." 

        Related Sites

California Voter Foundation -

            Local Choice 2000 campaign -

            California Secretary of State -

            Goddard Claussen -

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