The citizen was booted out of the citizen initiative by corporations and the superrich some time ago. Now a Vancouver man has a clever way to bring the people back in, but the state says no.
There will be two “citizen” initiatives on the election ballot this fall. I can say that with some certainty because that’s how many petition-gathering campaigns have been blessed by the superrich.
Tim Eyman’s going to make the ballot with one of his tax-limiting measures because unlike last year, this time he found a few multimillionaires to bankroll him.
The other initiative, to ban trafficking in certain exotic, endangered species of animals, is almost entirely financed by one person, multibillionaire Paul Allen.
These are the best initiatives money can buy. The rule of thumb is if you have about a million dollars, your idea is by definition strong enough to qualify for a vote. If you don’t have a million, then it isn’t good enough and usually it won’t make the ballot.
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Democracy, just as the founding fathers intended!
So it caught my eye when a little-known attorney down in Vancouver, Wash., filed two citizen initiatives with a special twist.
The initiatives would require that police officers wear body cameras and that police departments report to the public whenever they use force on the job. I don’t know yet if they are sound proposals, and it’s almost certain they have been submitted too late to make this year’s ballot.
What’s potentially groundbreaking is the way Angus Lee, a former county prosecutor, is going about his signature-gathering. He’s doing it all online.
“It’s Democracy 2.0,” Lee says. “The democracy we have right now is great if you’re a billionaire.”
The reason getting an initiative on the ballot costs so much is you have to collect about 250,000 valid signatures of registered voters by July 2. Campaigns shoot for at least 300,000, because many get thrown out during the verification process by the state.
This is so difficult to do using volunteers that few try anymore. Campaigns now expect to pay $1 to $3 per signature to professional canvassers. That means about a million bucks to put a measure before voters.
The use of electronic signature-gathering could completely upend all that.
You could short-circuit any need for paid signature-gatherers, and at least theoretically you wouldn’t need much money. If you have an idea with strong appeal and it gets passed around online, it could attract hundreds of thousands of eyeballs.
Best of all, we’d no longer have to run the gantlet of petitioners buzzing us like drones outside the grocery store.
Lee, who was a controversial prosecutor in Grant County and lost re-election last November, uses electronic signing in his private-practice law office. He set up his petitions online with a DocuSign feature, in which you can sign your name digitally with a mouse, a stylus or a touch-screen. It’s common now in real estate, banking and other business transactions.
The state says it’s new to politics, at least here. And that if Lee turns in electronic signatures, the state won’t take them.
“We need ‘wet signatures,’ ” says Lori Augino, the state director of elections. “That means the original signatures on the paper on which they were signed.”
Isn’t that kind of … dated?
“The process we’re using today is the same one we’ve been using for a hundred years. I guess you could say it’s ‘tried and true.’ ”
Augino said the rules are set by the Legislature. Lee says state law doesn’t mention electronic signatures, but also doesn’t disallow them, so he intends to push the issue — in court if it comes to it.
“I can buy a house using my electronic signature, but they’re saying I can’t sign an initiative?” he said. “Does that make sense to you?”
Well, the Legislature doesn’t like initiatives, so the last thing they’re going to do is make them easier. Ironically, that means someone would probably have to do an Initiative for Electronic Signature Initiatives. Doubly ironically, that would have to be done the archaic way, with paid petitioners hassling you to sign in fountain pen outside the Safeway, all of which costs a million bucks so it won’t happen unless some rich person or corporation wants it to.
The initiative process in this state stopped making sense to me a long time ago.