Nebraska State Senator Paul Schumacher, author and sponsor of Legislative Bill 566 (LB566), which would create a “Smart Initiatives” system allowing Nebraska voters to electronically sign initiative and related petitions online, thinks that passing it is essential if the “people of Nebraska” are to remain “the second house” in the only state with a unicameral legislature. He doesn’t think, however, that the time is propitious for its passage in this session of that unicameral legislature, which he says will be “swamped in misery” dealing with Nebraska’s budget woes.
In an exclusive phone interview this afternoon with Etopia News, Senator Schumacher, who represents District 22 in the Nebraska legislature, explained how the state’s initiative rules were “reasonably healthy until the 1990s,” when a combination of court decisions and actions by the legislature made it increasingly difficult to collect the signatures required to qualify a proposed measure for the ballot.
These decisions included the substitution of the term “registered voters” for “electors” (people who actually voted) in the state constitution, which effectively doubled the number of signatures required. Also adding to the difficulties was a requirement that the signatures needed to be gathered in a large proportion of counties across the state. The addition of a vague “single subject” rule has meant that some proposed initiatives needed to be divided in several parts, each of which needed to get the required number of signatures.
All of these impediments made qualifying initiatives in Nebraska difficult but not impossible, he said. But the passage in 2008 of Legislative Bill 39, which imposed residency requirements on signature gatherers and prohibited paying them according to the number of signatures they collected effectively blocked, according to Senator Schumacher, any possible efforts to qualify ballot initiatives in the state.
So, in order to circumvent these restrictions, he’s introduced Legislative Bill 566 , which would set up a system for collecting electronic signatures online in support of ballot initiatives.
“Nebraska is in a unique position” with its unicameral legislature, he said, and for this reason “reserved the right of the people” to legislate through the initiative process, which he now thinks needs to include online signature gathering in order to remain viable.
“We know that all kinds of things can be done over the internet, including massive cash transfers,” he said, so why not be able to collect initiative signatures the same way? Collecting signature online, he added, allows this to be done without the need to “bother people on the street,” where they are susceptible to being harassed by “hawkers” and “anti-hawkers” sent out by opponents of a ballot measure.
Identification and authentication of the electronic signatures can be accomplished by relying on a variety of existing bits of digitally-stored data, including those associated with driver’s licenses, state taxes, or even from newly-created electronic records created when citizens make an online contribution to a special state maintenance fund set up to pay for the online signature gathering process itself.
Using this method to validate signatures, says Schumacher, is just as secure as “hiring people to be handwriting experts” to check manual signatures by hand. Allowing signatures to be gathered online, he argues, would address the problem created by the need to separate provisions of a measure into multiple petitions to satisfy the “single-subject” rule; would reduce the cost of circulating initiative petitions; and would generally increase the convenience of the process.
And, in order to provide another check on misuse of an electronic system, postcards would be mailed to everyone who electronically signed, notifying them that someone had signed in their name, and providing a means by which falsely submitted signatures could be weeded out.
Despite the advantages of cost and convenience, and the security with which signatures could be verified, Senator Schumacher does not think his bill will pass the legislature, at least not this year.
He says that this is primarily because the legislators will be “obsessed with the budget crisis” facing the state. “It’s not going to wind its way through the process,” he told Etopia News.
Nevertheless, he said it was “integral” to democracy in Nebraska that the right of initiative be preserved as a “viable tradition” in the state. “We have to figure out a way to do it, in order to bring ourselves into the 21st century and to retain the status of the people as the second house of Nebraska.”
(In violation of this article's own "single-subject" rule, it might be noted that the European Union, a political jurisdiction containing roughly 500 million people [approximately 250 times that of Nebraska], has already adopted Smart Initiatives in the form of the European Citizens' Initiative [ECI], which is discussed in detail by the Institute for Initiative and Referendum-Europe's President, Bruno Kaufmann, in a remotely-recorded video interview from Etopia News here.)