Leading California politicians and unions are fighting electronic signature gathering here. This week, the European Union embraced it.

The occasion was the announcement of legislation to implement a new citizen’s initiative process for the 27 members states of the EU. The ECI, or European Citizen’s Initiative, was part of the new European constitution approved last December. This isn’t a ballot initiative, though it may be a precursor to one. This initiative process allows citizens, by gathering 1 million signature across 9 different states of the EU, to introduce legislation for the continent. That puts the people on par with the member state governments and the European Commission (the EU’s executive body), which currently are the only two entities that can introduce legislation.

The news here are the choices the Europeans appear to be making about how to structure the new signature gathering process. In almost every way, their process represents a vast improvement on what we have in California. Consider just two features:

-Electronic signatures. The European legislation makes the initiative process electronic. Measures can be filed electronic. And signatures may be collected on-line and electronically. The technical details will have be to worked out in the regulatory process. Why? The Europeans want to keep costs low and improve access to the ballot. The rich and powerful in California, who enjoy near exclusive access to the ballot, are opposing the current effort by one Silicon Valley start-up and several initiative sponsors to use such technology.

-More time. Most U.S. states have fairly tight time limits for gathering signatures on initiatives and referenda. 90 days is common. In California, it’s five months. The trouble with short timelines is that they add to the cost and difficulty of gathering, thus limiting participation in direct democracy to rich people and interest groups. The Europeans counter that by providing an entire year for initiative sponsors to gather signatures. That’s smart policy, and will produce a more democratic direct democracy.

The new legislation in Europe will be debated for the rest of the year, and could change. But it seems likely that Europe will end up with far better rules for its direct democracy than we have. California, by comparison, is stuck with outdated and undemocratic rules, and seems unable to make improvements in its process because of the opposition of the powerful.

If the desire to make our system more democratic doesn’t motivate us, maybe the reality that we’re falling behind the rest of the world as a democracy will.