Saturday, April 30, 2016

Op-ed: Why we need to sign, qualify, and pass the “California Initiative, Referendum and Recall Act of 2016” (CIRRRA2016)

Mike Liddell, a chiropractor from Placerville, California, in idyllic El Dorado County, wants to fight corruption in politics by making it easier to recall errant electeds, dispose of despised legislation, and propose one’s own.  He proposes doing this by legalizing online signature-gathering on initiative, referendum, and recall petitions.

Now circulating, the “California Initiative, Referendum and Recall Reform Act of2016” (CIRRRA2016), of which Mr. Liddell is chief proponent, would require Secretary of State Alex Padilla to create, within 180 days of the law going into effect, a system whereby registered California voters (who can now register online to vote here) would be able to legally “affix” the digitized version of their signature on file at the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to official and online initiative, referendum, and recall petitions, to be made available to all on the Secretary of State’s website.

It currently is very expensive to qualify a ballot initiative, referendum, or recall petition, since it typically involves hiring and paying a team of paid circulators.  Owners of the stores where circulators work usually don’t like having their customers subject to the attention of the circulators.  People are busy when they are out shopping and don’t have the time or bandwidth to seriously consider the merits of a proposed ballot measure. 

All these problems go away when voters can consider proposed ballot measures on their own timetable online, where they can read supporting and opposing arguments about the proposals and make up their minds thoughtfully as to whether or not they want to add their signature to a particular petition.

On the other side of the transaction, county election officials, responsible for processing a growing flood of paper-and-ink petitions, are being swamped and stressed for funds to keep up with the increased use of these processes of direct democracy.   Creating an electronic, online option for signing official initiative, referendum, and recall petitions would save the counties time and money, be more convenient for citizens, and reduce the need for fraught in-person petition signature solicitation in public places. 

They would also allow for the direct verification of each and every signature submitted, going beyond the random sampling and extrapolation that is now standard procedure in county election offices.

Even with the legalization of online signature-gathering, it will still require the signatures of 5% of the voters in the last gubernatorial election (365,880 right now) to qualify a statewide ballot initiative measure, and it will still require the support of a majority of those voting on it in a public election before it comes law.

But legalizing online signature gathering would do much to restore the grass-roots orientation of these processes of direct democracy.  Proposition 7 created, in 1911, the modern California initiative and referendum.  A century later, it deserves to be modernized with the best digital tools available, and that means legalizing online signature-gathering.
Let us leave for a later time a discussion of the impact this reform will have on politics in the Golden State.  But some objections to making that transition are already apparent.

Elected officials may not like it if their constituents can organize an online recall campaign against them at any time.  I suppose this will make them even more attentive than they already are to the policy preferences and administrative needs of their constituents.  This sounds like an improvement to me.

Elected officials may not like it that hundreds of thousands of ordinary, civilian, registered voters will be able to exercise some of the same legislative sway mediated by electronics that they currently enjoy themselves, when they use smartphone apps and online websites to make their policy preferences known and recognized, just as the electeds get to vote electronically in floor sessions in their legislative chambers.  That sounds like an improvement to me.

Election officials, on the other hand, may like it that they can replace (or augment) their current methods by transitioning from pen-and-paper to a cloud-based automated system that immediately validates the status of each signature submitted.  That sounds like an improvement to me, too.

Let’s give it a try.

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