Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nebraska's LB 566 would implement Smart Initiatives in the Cornhusker State

At the turn of the 21st Century, after a failed effort to implement Internet voting in California, this reporter made an effort to find “common ground” with some of its detractors by proposing in its place the idea of “Smart Initiatives,” which would allow registered voters to electronically sign initiative, recall, and referendum petitions online. You can read a short explanation of the concept here. You can read a lot more about it, including text of testimony presented to the Speaker's Commission on the California Initiative Process on January 22, 2001, here. You can listen to that testimony by downloading an audio file here.

Ten years later, a courageous and visionary state senator in Nebraska, Paul Schumacher, has introduced a bill into that state’s unicameral legislature to implement Smart Initiatives in the heart of the heartland. The introduction of this proposed law, Legislative Bill 566 (LB 566) is briefly reported on on the web site here.

Etopia News has not yet been able to speak to either Senator Schumacher or to the clever legislative staffer or staffers who drafted it, but it’s already clear that the bill carefully and comprehensively addresses many of the crucial and problematic elements needed for a successful Smart Initiatives implementation.

One particularly elegant solution embedded in this proposal addresses the need to identify and authenticate electronic, online signers of ballot initiatives, referendums, and recalls (hereinafter, “initiatives”). Rather than requiring every state voter to acquire a digital certificate, as envisioned by the original Smart Initiatives system, the proposed Nebraska system would allow voters to identify and authenticate themselves using “state qualified data,” which would include a variety of sources:

“a valid voter identification number issued or assigned by the Secretary of State, an audit trail of which is maintained by the Secretary of State; a qualifying self-assigned personal identification number preregistered by an eligible signer with the Secretary of State or an election commissioner or county clerk; a personal identification number on a state tax return filed with the Department of Revenue; a unique access code or other unique electronic identifier assigned or approved by a state agency for use in identifying a party in communications with the state agency and which the Secretary of State has integrated into the electronic signature process; or other data which is maintained for purposes of identification by a state agency or county agency independently of the voter registration register and which is accessible by the Secretary of State.”

Voters can also establish their online credentials by making a contribution to the State’s Petition Operations Fund with a debit or credit card and then using that transaction as their “state qualified data” enabling them to sign the petition online.

Opponents of Smart Initiatives previously raised the specter of fraudulently-submitted signatures gumming up the process. This objection was countered long ago by proposing the simple expedient of sending notifications to all alleged signers, allowing them to easily complain that their names had been falsely added to the signatures list and to get them removed.

The proposed Nebraska Smart Initiatives law implements this common sense solution, specifying that:

“Upon receipt of an electronic signature, the Secretary of State shall mail a post card by United States mail to the signer at the address on his or her voter registration record notifying the signer that his or her signature has been received, identifying the petition to which the signature is attached, and notifying the signer that he or she has ten days to contact the office of the Secretary of State to indicate that he or she did not submit the signature.”

As with the original Smart Initiatives proposal, the Nebraska version specifies that opponents and proponents of every initiative will be able to link their online arguments to the central web site that will contain the complete text of the initiative and provide the opportunity for voters to sign it.

One provision not included in the original Smart Initiatives plan is a plan to charge proponents of statutory initiatives $5,000 to cover expenses of the process, and to charge proponents of constitutional amendments $10,000 for that purpose. Reading the fine print of the proposed law, however, reveals that “A petition sponsor who cannot afford the filing fee may file a qualifying affidavit in lieu of the filing fee.” The proposed law is subtle, too, making provision to prevent false claims of poverty:

“If the petition sponsor reports to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission fifty thousand dollars or more in aggregate contributions in support of the petition or ten thousand dollars or more in aggregate contributions from a petition sponsor, the qualifying affidavit ceases to have effect and the petition sponsor shall pay the appropriate filing fee before further use of electronic signatures for such petition is permitted.”

The bill also includes a provision that will be of great help to circulators: “The Secretary of State shall make public on a county-by-county basis, at least once each week, the number of electronic signatures collected for each petition.”

LB 566 has been referred to the unicameral legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Senator Bill Avery. If passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, it will go into effect on January 1, 2012.

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