Friday, February 11, 2011

A spectre is haunting more than Europe--the spectre of Smart Initiatives

Smart Initiatives is an electoral process in which citizens can use the Internet, not just to tweet about demonstrations, or to build Facebook pages for a cause, but to actually use the Internet to electronically sign petitions to put proposals for new laws before voters, or before the European Parliament, to demand the right to vote on already-passed legislation, to recall elected officials they’ve lost faith in, or to qualify a candidate for a place on the ballot.

The European Union (EU), with a population of 500 million people, has already adopted Smart Initiatives, in the form of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), which will go into effect early in 2012. The ECI will let EU citizens propose laws for consideration by the European Parliament by collecting one million signatures, distributed across the several countries of the EU, including by electronic means.

The latest issue regarding this process involves whether or not European citizens who wish to sign these ECI’s electronically will need to submit their national ID numbers in order to do so. This issue is addressed in a recent article entitled “A Serious (but Removable) Obstacle: ID Card Numbers and the ECI.”

In the United States, adoption of Smart Initiatives has not proceeded this far, but there are signs that it is becoming more and more prominent as an item on the political agenda.

Utah’s Supreme Court decided in September, 2010, that “Electronic signatures are as valid as handwritten signatures in qualifying independent candidates who seek to get their names on the general election ballot,” according to an article by Cathy McKitrick in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Showing how important this small step was, efforts are already underway by opponents of this court decision to reverse it by passing new legislation (S.B. 55) regarding the acceptability of electronic signatures in Utah. According to Paul Neuenschwander, Chief of Staff to Utah’s Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell, who was the defendant who lost in the original case, “the Lieutenant Governor’s office would not be accepting electronic signatures for ballot access if the bill passed.”.

Slightly further east in the U.S., Nebraska State Senator Paul Schumacher has introduced Legislative Bill 566 (LB 566), which would bring Smart Initiatives to the Cornhusker State by allowing citizens there to use “state-qualified data” to identify and authenticate themselves while electronically signing initiative, referendum, and recall petitions. Senator Schumacher thinks his bill is “essential,” but doesn’t think it will pass. The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry has taken no position on the bill, but is “monitoring” its status.

And, just north of Utah, members of the Independent American Party of Idaho are hoping to gain access to that state’s ballot as a recognized party by collecting some of the required signatures electronically.

Much ink and electrons have been spilled in recent days debating the impact of the Internet as a tool for social and political change, especially in terms of its ability to motivate and coordinate protesters in Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt. Lost in the discussion is the fact that, at least in Europe, the Internet can also, and already, be used to directly facilitate the making of public policy, through the process of the European Citizens’ Initiative and the right it affords to sign official initiative petitions electronically online.

Adoption of the Smart Initiative process is not yet so far advanced in the United States. But as attention is riveted on the bloggers and others in Tahrir Square, one can note the Internet is not just useful for organizing mass movements, but, once those movements have brought democracy to a country, that it can be used for mobilizing the intelligence and will of that country’s people in the actual formulation and implementation of public policy, through the use of some form of Smart Initiatives.

Perhaps both of these roles will be realized someday with the adoption and routine use of Smart Initiatives in Egypt and other Middle Eastern and North African democracies.

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