LB 566, a bill now pending in Nebraska’s unique unicameral legislature, would create a system of “Smart Initiatives” in that state, allowing Nebraskans to electronically sign initiative, referendum, and recall petitions online. The bill, authored by State Senator Paul Schumacher, was heard by the Government, Military, and Veterans Affairs Committee on March 2nd.
According to Senator Schumacher’s staff member Peg Jones, the Senator “felt good about the reception the bill got and the questions that were asked.” A transcript of the hearing won’t be available until next week, so Etopia News is relying at this point principally on Ms. Jones’ account of what happened at the hearing.
She related that Neal Erickson, Deputy Secretary of State for Elections, appearing before the committee on behalf of Secretary of State John Gale, expressed some concerns about the bill, principally the fact that it would cost, by his estimate, $385,000 to implement its provisions for a system that would allow Nebraska citizens to read and electronically sign online versions of proposed initiatives, referendums, and recalls. Contacted directly for comment on his concerns, Mr. Erickson said that “the record speaks for itself.”
Also appearing to testify with reservations about the legislation, according to the official transcript of the hearing, was Jason Kvols, director for District 3 on the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation's Board of Directors. Mr. Kvols' concerns focused on the alleged inability of people on farms to access the Internet, which would exclude them from taking advantage of a Smart Initiatives system. He also expressed concern that the measure would empower potential attacks on farmers' interests by their urban opponents. The continued manual circulation and signature of official initiative, referendum, and recall petitions would still be allowed if LB 566 becomes law.
A single witness appeared before the committee to testify in its favor. He was Kent Bernbeck, a “petition veteran,” according to an article in the Lexington Clipper-Herald. Contacted by Etopia News, Mr. Bernbeck promptly provided by e-mail text containing his description of the hearing and an elucidation of his reasons for supporting LB 566.
Here’s what he had to say about the hearing:
“The Government Committee heard testimony today on a online petition bill. Senator Schumacher acknowledged that it would be better to advance a comprehensive election/petition rights bill after an interim study and combine it with other election-related bills. Paul Schumacher (former petition sponsor) was excellent as he gave the committee a history lesson of the doubling of signature thresholds to the ban on payment per signature.”
“Thanks, Paul,” he added. He continued:
“This legislation gained momentum today although the Deputy Secretary of State, Neal Erickson, opposed the bill based on costs and [that] it would be difficult to implement. Watch this one next session...along with the bill to restrict reasons for recall.”
Mr. Bernbeck then provided a general statement in support of the bill and a list of reasons why he thought the bill would make a desirable change in Nebraska’s laws governing the collection of signatures on official petitions, which now, among other restrictions, prohibit the payment of signature gatherers on a per-signature basis for the signatures they collect, which makes it difficult to find people to circulate these petitions.
He endorsed the bill by saying that:
“LB 566 is a logical and well-thought-out advancement of the deliberative process of citizen-led legislation by allowing petition signers to go to a secure, Secretary of State website, read and understand the measure and register their support for an initiative, referendum or recall petition.”
He gave a dozen specific reasons for supporting LB 566:
1.) Facilitate the initiative and referendum rights
2.) The need to overcome obstacles in exercising these rights
3.) Advance existing, modern technology
4.) Provide for a contemplative environment for those rights to be exercised
5.) Provide for a secure and valid method to prevent fraud
6.) Long overdue definition of sponsor
7.) Opt-out provision
8.) Provides for cost to be paid by sponsor yet allows for low budget, grassroots access
9.) Will save county election commissioners money
10.) Provides for an audit trail to help prevent fraud
11.) Allows for privacy of voter information
12.) Less reliance on circulators
He concluded by saying that:
“Most importantly, this measure would help level the playing field for low-budget, grassroots petitions while promoting a 'contemplative environment' to evaluate the measures being advanced through I&R [initiative and referendum].”
Senator Schumacher’s staff member Peg Jones explained that the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee could now “advance, kill or hold” LB 566. She said that if it were to be “held,” this would give Senator Schumacher “time to look at the issues raised” by the spokespeople for the Secretary of State and the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation. She expressed hope that the bill would be “held over the interim,” the period between June 8, 2011, when the Nebraska Unicameral adjourns for the year, and January, 2012, when the second session of this term of the legislature will begin.
While the Nebraska Unicameral is considering LB 566, the 500-million strong European Union (EU) already has in place a Smart Initiatives process, known as the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI). Under the terms of the ECI, if one million citizens of the 27-member EU sign an initiative petition, either manually or electronically online, the proposed legislation is officially submitted to the European Commission for consideration by the European Parliament.
For an update on the status of the European Smart Initiatives ECI, watch a February 1, 2011, remotely-recorded video interview with Bruno Kaufmann, President of the Institute for Initiative and Referendum-Euope, here.