The Center for Governmental Studies, as part of its Democracy by Initiative project, has published an article on online signature gathering. CGS stops short of endorsing the proposal but discusses some of the pros and cons:
One approach to balancing the influence of money in qualifying initiatives would be to let registered voters sign initiative petitions on a computer and transmit their signatures over the Internet to be counted toward the required total, so long as proper authentication and other security procedures were followed. This could help level the playing field for less-well-funded groups who could mobilize voter support via the Internet as an alternative to paying petition circulators the going rate — two dollars and up per signature. Online petition signing could also enhance public discourse about ballot measures through interactive online commentary and discussions.
Others have voiced objections to online signature gathering on the grounds that insecure computers or communications links could lead to large-scale fraud in signing initiative petitions; that voters without computers and Internet access would be disadvantaged; and that online signing would make qualifying initiatives too easy and thus deluge voters with many more ballot measures at each election.
It’s an interesting idea. Certainly it would be valuable in combating the dirty tricks signature gatherers use to get people to sign, where they typically obscure the actual meaning or intent of a proposed initiative. Online signature gathering would enable voters to better understand what they’re signing – though whether that’ll acutally happen or not is an open question.
To counter the likelihood that this would produce more initiatives on the ballot, CGS suggested raising the number of signatures required to qualify an initiative. And of course there are security concerns to be considered – with the possibility that more secure methods would be more off-putting to potential online signers.
It seems to me that this reform would only have value in concert with other fundamental reforms of the system, from meaningful and enforcable campaign finance reforms to limitations on what the initiative process can be used to do. I’m all for giving the people themselves more power (so I’m ideologically inclined to support having an initiative system) but for it to have maximum use online signature gathering ought to be enfolded within a larger package of reform.