Internet may reshape California ballot initiatives

By Rebecca Fairley Raney
Published February 5, 1999. Copyright, New York Times.



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 politics.

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 number.

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 the 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 localchoice2000.com 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 Legislature."

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 capitol.

"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."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company





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