Here is one democratic advance that COVID-19 should demand. The introduction of digital processes for collecting signatures on ballot measure petitions, effective immediately.
The coronavirus crisis has hit as petition circulators work towards an unofficial mid-April deadline to gather enough signatures to get various measures on this November’s ballot.
But as Politico has shown, the effort has been made more expensive—and medically risky—by COVID-19. A circulator can have hand sanitizer and wipes at the ready, and even purchase tens of thousands of pens so each voter who signs has his or her own. But it’s impractical to collect a signature at a social distance of 6 feet.
The obvious workaround involves allowing technology into the process—something that should have been done long ago. Online signature gathering has been kept illegal by powerful interests that detest the initiative process, and the politicians and judges those interests support.
It’s well past time to open up the process online. The virtues go beyond the current moment. It would give people more time to read and think before they sign a measure—instead of having a clipboard thrust in front of them at a supermarket. It might reduce the costs of signature gathering. And an online system might make verification of signatures an easier and less costly process for county registrars.
I’m seeing more and more online systems for petitioning in direct democracy around the world. These systems are typically less expensive and more efficient than California’s. If the Golden State would follow the world’s lead, COVID-19 might produce something good: a more democratic democracy here in California.