In California, Taking the Initiative - Online

Internet site to draft ballot measure hints at a future of democracy by computer.

If you think the election season is buttoned up and put away, think again.

Another has already begun in California, which this week delivered one of its signature innovations in the workings of democracy. Combining a hot topic with hot technology, it could be a glimpse of where citizen power is headed in the 21st century.

Supporters of education reform here have posted an Internet site (www.localchoice2000.com) that encourages the public to help draft a ballot initiative for the spring 2000 election. Its overarching aim is to increase local control of schools.

The issue itself is hot enough. Public opinion polls show education is the top worry among Californians, and any new citizen-based policy here could well reverberate nationally.

But the most controversial feature of this measure, and one that could spread instantly regardless of whether the measure is ever approved, is the process itself, something akin to writing legislation with several million co-sponsors.

To critics, it's a logical excess in an already excessive process that has turned the ballot initiative into a fourth branch of government, albeit one with almost no rules of order. To others, it's an inspired use of technology to help broaden participation in civic affairs amid signs aplenty that traditional voter turnout is in decline.

In any event, the melding of cyberspace and democracy is surely on its way, say a number of analysts.

"It's part of an interesting, important, and inevitable trend. The Internet is uniquely susceptible to this form of participatory democracy," says Tracy Westen, president of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

Pin numbers for voting

Beyond just writing ballot measures interactively over the Internet, a number of analysts expect some states to begin permitting registration and voting from computer terminals over the next several years.

Backers of the education measure being drafted here intend to seek permission from the state to be the first to gather the 400,000 signatures necessary to put it on the ballot electronically. They would use pin numbers like those used at ATMs.

Such a step in itself could revolutionize the ballot-initiative process by making it vastly easier and cheaper to qualify measures.

Digital "signatures" are already legal in California for many business purposes, but they are not yet permitted in the election code. A spokesman says Secretary of State Bill Jones will convene a task force next month that will begin exploring Internet voting and ballot signatures.

The main backer of this education initiative is Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper. He was appointed to the state board of education this year.

While "choice" has become almost synonymous with vouchers, Mr. Draper says he's not certain what the final language of this initiative will include. But he says his inclination is to leave public dollars in public schools.

The only guiding principle for the initiative is to achieve greater local control and decisionmaking for schools. The online ballot site asks for comments and suggestions from anyone interested in helping "take back our schools."

California is among 23 mostly Western and Midwestern states that permit ballot initiatives. Activist states like California and Oregon have enacted controversial policies on everything from physician-assisted suicide to affirmative action, stirring national debate on issues that did not survive the conventional legislative process.

"It has become excessive," says Norma Brecher of the California League of Women Voters. The League intends to recommend a comprehensive package of reforms early next year. They will either encourage legislation or take the reforms directly to the ballot with an initiative of their own.

Tweaking a popular process

Reformists advocate a number of changes, but some of the most prominent include stricter vetting of initiative language to avoid flagrant legal conflicts, clearer disclosure of initiative backers, and a process that would increase the odds of a legislative resolution to issues before they go on the ballot.

Attorney Robin Johansen was involved this year in drawing up a reform initiative on behalf of San Diego Padres owner John Moores, but the measure never made it to the ballot. Though they may try again, Ms. Johansen concedes major reform is difficult "because the initiative process is so popular."

Still, Utah, Mississippi, and Montana have recently approved reforms to their initiative processes. In Utah, for instance, a two-thirds majority is now required to pass measures related to wildlife and the environment.

Some think cyberspace can help improve the initiative process. Drafting measures online, like the current effort here, can broaden participation and lead, in the end, to initiatives with fewer obvious flaws. Of course, that broader base applies only to those with computers and online connections.

In all, putting the electoral process in cyberspace "saves money, is more convenient and once it's in place, can be even more secure that what we have now," says Marc Strassman of the Campaign for Digital Democracy in southern California.

Still, critics of the initiative process like author Peter Schrag believe involving more cooks in the stew is not necessarily a progressive step. Speaking of the LOCALCHOICE 2000 initiative, he says, "This is not my idea of political leadership."

Drafting measures online can broaden participation and lead to initiatives with fewer obvious flaws. Of course, that broader base applies only to those with online connections.

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