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Popular Signature, Internet and Boule Methods of Qualifying Nationwide Initiatives

This section contains a brief discussion and comparison of three alternatives for qualifying the U.S. Initiatives that are to be placed on the ballot as Candidate Initiatives for vote by the nationwide Electorate.

Introduction

There have been no nationwide Initiatives in the U.S. This planned constitutional Amendment will authorize them. United States Initiatives (abbreviated to Initiatives) can implement only such laws as Congress already has the power to enact.

It is expected that there will be many groups with ideas for proposed Initiatives to place on the ballot for vote by the Electorate. Obviously, there has to be some way to keep the proposed Initiatives to a reasonable number and to ensure their quality. There are three basic systems that can function as a gateway to decide which Initiative is held back and which is let through and placed on the next ballot for vote by the Electorate:

  1. Popular Signature Petition
    Following the method used in many States, a Popular Petition is prepared that defines the proposed law. A required number of voters must sign the petition. If the hurdle of the required number of signatures is not cleared, the petition fails; if the signature hurdle is cleared, the petition become an Initiative and is placed on the next ballot for vote by the Electorate.

  2. Internet Voting System
    A system of Internet voting will be used to rate the proposed initiatives on a database. The highest-ranking proposed initiatives will become Candidate Initiatives on the ballot.

  3. Boule
    A Boule of randomly selected citizens eligible to vote, rather like a large grand jury acting as deputies of the people.

These three methods are briefly discussed and compared below.

Method 1: Popular Signature Petition

Experience with Popular Petitions in the U.S.

Direct initiatives are allowed in fourteen States (AZ, AR, CA, CO, ID, MO, MT, NE, ND, OK, OR, SD, UT, WA), all of which use the popular petition method. Usually, the first step is gathering a team of citizens to prepare a popular petition that defines the proposed law. The team then obtains sufficient funds to campaign for popular support and to gather more than the required number of voter signatures supporting the petition. The required number of signatures varies widely, but the median is about eight percent of those who voted for the gubernatorial office in the last election. The petition is then filed with state officials who count only the valid signatures. The proposed law is voted on in the next election, or in a special election. If it passes by a majority, it becomes law.

In addition to state direct initiatives, U.S. voters are presented with a range of other direct democracy items, such as state indirect initiatives in an additional 10 states, state statute referendums, state constitutional referendums, city initiatives and referendums, etc. 70 percent of the U.S. Electorate votes on state and city initiatives (Matsusaka p.1) and over time, almost 100 percent vote on some type of state initiatives or referendums.

Experience with Popular Petitions in Other Countries

The two most significant and successful users of Initiatives are ancient Athens and modern Switzerland. It is perhaps most significant that the populations involved are small. Ancient Athens had a population of about 100,000. Switzerland has a population of about 7,300,000 divided into 26 relatively autonomous Cantons. 50,000 signatures are required to petition a popular vote on new federal legislation.

Popular Petition Signature Requirement for Selecting Initiatives

The States' direct initiative method could be used for a nationwide Initiative. Instead of the required number of petition signatures being based on the gubernatorial vote in the previous election, it could be based on the Presidential vote. Using the States' median of requiring eight percent of the gubernatorial voters and the 100,000,000 voters for the office of President in the 2000 elections, the required number of petition signatures would be 8,000,000 for each Initiative.

Method 2: Petition Internet Voting

Petition Qualification Internet Voting by the People has great appeal. It could, for example, be operated by an online citizen institution (OCI) that uses a secure, peer-reviewed, online voting system. The organizing institutions should be fully transparent. This system has the theoretical potential to allow the People's governance rights and political equality fully to be realized.

Experience with Political Internet Voting

Electronic voting at the polls is becoming accepted in many locations around the world. However, this is not the same thing as Internet voting.

Internet voting requires that every voter can be uniquely identified at their personal computer (or equivalent) while connected to the Internet. This is normally done by a user-name and password combination known only to the individual voter and to the central voting system. In theory, this is within today's technology. And, with the increasing availability and use of biometric identification and digital signatures, it is certainly well within the scope of future technologies. The subject of E-Government is receiving official attention—e.g., the Congressional Internet Caucus.

  1. Since 2000, there have been several examples of U.S. political Internet voting at a party level, e.g.:

    1. Alaska
      The Republican Party used Internet voting to mobilize voters living in the remotest regions of Alaska to participate in the 2000 Republican straw poll.

    2. Arizona
      The Arizona Democratic Party, seeking to boost participation in its party caucuses, conducted the first-ever binding Internet vote in 2000.

    3. Michigan
      Drawing on the Arizona experience, the Michigan Democratic Party implemented Internet voting as a means to improve accessibility and voter turnout for its presidential caucuses in 2004.

  2. In September 2004, and after several pilot votes on the communal level, 20,000 citizens of the Swiss canton of Geneva were offered the opportunity to cast their votes over the Internet in a federal referendum. For the first time in the world, parts of the electorate were able to cast their votes through remote internet voting for a binding nationwide decision.

    Interestingly, it appears that the principal factor influencing voters to choose Internet voting was if they could save time over conventional voting. The net result was that the total number of voters did not change much, but their methods of voting changed.

There are, however, significant security issues involved with e-voting. These are monitored by many organizations such as the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, SERVE, etc. The general conclusion is that e-voting is feasible but that security and integrity are still major issues yet to be resolved before widespread use can be trusted.

Costs of Internet Voting on Proposed Petitions

Let us assume:

  1. That the number of voter is 100,000,000—i.e., about the same number who actually vote in general elections—and not reduced or selected in some way to be a subset of the Electorate.

  2. 500 proposed initiatives per year—the estimated number for the Boule.

  3. A 12-minute effort for a citizen to make an informed voting decision by reading 500 to 1,000 words of available information and thinking about it.

  4. A Citizen's time worth of $10 per hour—roughly the minimum wage including overheads.

The annual amount of time needed for the nationwide Electorate to qualify initiatives will be 100,000,000 x 500 x 1/5 = 10 billion person-hours or $100 billion dollars-worth of voters' time. Even if the number assumptions are rough and debatable, the conclusion remains that the costs are excessive. Of course, the People will not really spend so much of their time in this manner, so a few activist voters will control the vote.

Method 3: Boule (i.e., Randomly Selected Citizens' Assembly)

Experience with the Boule Method

Athens and modern Switzerland amount to very small democratic units by today's standards. By their small size, it is theoretically feasible for virtually all the Electorate to determine or at least influence which Initiatives they wish to vote on. However, with U.S. actual voters numbering over 100 million and a far greater geographic size, expecting the entire Electorate to choose what they wanted to vote on would be absurd.

However, a representative sample of the Electorate could make a decision for the Electorate. In fact, even in small Athens, they introduced a Council of Five Hundred, with important preliminary jurisdiction when the regular Assembly of the People was not in session. The selection of the Council's members was usually by lot and for only one year, thereby preventing monopoly of the office of deputy by professional politicians. The Boule took care of things until the entire Electorate could vote—a concept with a 2,500 year provenance!

In 2004, the Canadian Province of British Columbia (population 4.2 million) made deliberative direct-democracy history by convening a Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. The Citizens' Assembly consisted of 161 voters selected by stratified random sample of registered voters and without an obligatory duty to serve. The government provided secretariat support and a chairperson was assigned. (In other words, this was not a totally independent organization.) They worked part-time with pay for a period of 11 months. Their deliberations led to a proposed new electoral system (a Direct Initiative) that went directly to vote by the people of British Columbia at the provincial general elections on May 17, 2005. A 60 percent vote was needed for passage, but it received only 57 percent of the vote and therefore failed. The reports, videos and voice recordings of the Citizens' Assembly activities are available for viewing and download. The issues were complex but a stratified random sample of voters was up to the job.

Basic Structure and Authority of the Boule

A representative sample of the Electorate to form a Boule can easily be created in the U.S. by randomly selecting Boule Members from the best available databases. Members will be the Electorate's sworn deputies to act in the best interests of all U.S. citizens and their constitutional rights.

The Boule functions to deliberate on the merits of the proposed Initiatives, suggest changes to the authors if necessary to improve their comprehensibility that they may reasonably be absorbed by the Electorate, and act as a gateway to select which proposed Initiatives are placed on the next ballot for vote by the Electorate.

Any individual or group of U.S. citizens can submit proposed Initiatives by publication. The official publication sites will be negotiated and authorized by the Boule, and will be located in a one or more specific location(s) on a specific days so that everyone knows where to look for the information. The Boule should be able to get an advantageous agreement on the extent that the publisher will provide editorials, letters from the public, and perhaps some free Initiatives. If free publication is not available, then it will be necessary to publish in a paid advertisement. Though payment may be undesirable for some, it will serve an important benefit of preventing too many facetious and mischievous Initiative proposals, and will be within the financial capability of a group of citizens.

More details of the Boule are given in the Rules, Operations, and Constitutional Amendment pages.

Advantages of the Boule Method 3 over the Other Methods

The following shows that the Boule Method has clear advantages over the other methods.

Ability to Function Economically in a Large Democracy

In the petition method, the larger the population the more people and finances are available to collect signatures. Therefore, the required number of signature must be increased proportionately to limit the number of petitions and prevent inappropriate petitions. As was shown above, if State standards were used, then at least 8,000,000 signatures would have to be collected for each Initiative. The cost to the supporters of the petition would be huge, and the cost to the Government of validating each vote and counting them would be immense—it is believed that the State's cost of the recent special recall petition in California was over $30,000,000, and since California has 12.2 percent of the U.S. population, this extrapolates to a U.S. cost of $246,000,000 per petition. These numbers, even if crude and reducible by refinement of the petition method, indicate that the petition method scales up to unreasonable costs for nationwide initiatives.

By comparison, the Boule method best applies for a large population and large geographic areas (though it would not be cost-effective for small populations). The baseline annual budget is about $60 million—about 31¢ per capita—for not just one, but all the Initiatives. Assuming five initiatives per year, this means that the signature-petition method would be about 10 to 20 times as expensive as the Boule method for nationwide Initiatives. Of course, the number of signatures required can be reduced and the extravagances of the California recall can be omitted. On the other hand, nationwide signatures would probably require extensive geographic and perhaps demographic validations, so optimistic projections lowering their costs are probably unrealistic. Realistically, the low end of the range can perhaps be halved—i.e., say 5 to 20 times as expensive as the Boule method.

Deliberatively Select the Best Initiatives

A principle purpose of both the petition and Boule methods is to select which proposed Initiatives get onto the ballot. However, they use entirely different criteria.

In the petition method, the selection is based in large part on how well the petition campaign is financed and promoted. For 2004, BISC reported in their Money Talks: The 2004 Buyer's Guide that "Proponents spent an average of $12.3 million to qualify and advance their initiatives, while groups opposing the measures spent slightly more than $6 million apiece". The signatures can usually be obtained if there are plenty of volunteers or if sufficient funds are available to employ signature collectors—the going rate is 75 cents per signature. Petition campaigns tend to be somewhat emotional and occasionally chaotic as last minute efforts are made to get enough signatures.

In the Boule method, the selection is thoughtful and deliberative to select Initiatives that most benefit all U.S. citizens.

People's Deliberation and Feedback on the Initiatives

In the petition method, the wording of the Initiatives becomes fixed after the initiative has been filed. From this early date, the initiative can no longer be modified, so the People's debate does not affect the wording. Moreover, qualification signatures need only be gathered from activist backers—without any demonstration of widespread public support. Thus, a few activists can initiative wording that in part the majority do not want—the devil is in the detail. But the electorate must either approve the whole initiative or reject it and try to start the whole process again. This is akin to the "pork" appended to congressional bills and antithetical to direct democracy. It is one reason why some inferior State initiatives get on the ballot and approved.

This problem is avoided in the Boule method:

  1. Each Proposed Initiative is reviewed by the Boule, which accurately represent the People's views. If it is not in the People's best interest it will either be culled or suggested changes will be sent to the authors to correct the proposed initiative or to remove an inappropriate "special interest" benefit.

  2. All Proposed Initiatives are published in a newspaper and posted on the Boule Internet site. Any citizen can comment on them long before they are finalized.

  3. The process of going from a Proposed Initiative to a Candidate Initiative involves substantial review and consideration of the public interest by a Boule consisting of a cross-section of all the people that can be relied upon seldom to let an inappropriate Initiative, or part of an Initiative, get on the ballot.

The actual technology behind the feedback of information from Citizen to Boule is fairly straightforward.

Ensure that the Electorate is not Overwhelmed

The Electorate must not be overwhelmed or confused by the Initiatives, otherwise direct legislation becomes a fiasco.

In the petition method there is nothing to prevent Initiatives in far larger numbers and greater complexity than the Electorate can possibly handle. Petitions are normally produced by small autonomous groups and their quality is not assured. If the group consists of intellectually elite members of the public, Initiatives may not necessarily be comprehensible to enough of the voters. The result is to risk frequent situations in which the Electorate is overwhelmed. For example, in Switzerland, three-fold increase in the number of initiatives produced by signature petitions have been a major factor in a decline of voter participation over the last 50 years from 60 percent to 40 percent.

The Boule Members have sworn an oath of duty to assure Initiative quality and to prevent the Electorate from being overwhelmed. They rank proposed Initiatives in importance. Complex Initiatives are simplified and clarified by task force. A limited number are then selected for submission to the Electorate. There are two readings of each Candidate Initiative in full Boule plenary session in separate months at which the Members vote to stop or move the Initiative forward. Because the Boule is a random sample, the less able Members contribute importantly by not permitting Initiatives that cannot be understood and assimilated by a reasonable proportion of voters.

Experience in State Initiatives suggests that about 12 Candidate Initiatives every two years is close to the limit that the Electorate can study enough to make an informed decision. Even this number may induce some irritation in States that have their own initiatives concurrently on the ballot. Consequently, the number of nationwide direct initiatives is controlled by what can be achieved within the scope of this planned Amendment.

Voter Participation

Voter participation is related to the issue of overwhelming the Electorate. The two countries that use initiatives the most are the United States and Switzerland. Numerous studies show that these two countries present the lowest average levels of turnout among established democracies. As a consequence, both countries are testing and implementing new methods whereby voters can participate more efficiently by means of mail-in votes and Internet voting.

It is believed that voters do not have the time or enthusiasm to look at the numerous proposed initiatives—let alone deliberating on them and choosing the most worthy. This is one of the fundamental reasons that a Boule is necessary. It prevents excessive ballot information from being imposed on the voters and it ensures Initiatives are important, well prepared and present the issues that the Electorate want to see on the ballot.

Reliable Voter Decision Making

Voters have little time to research issues on their own. They need reliable, straightforward and informative preamble and fair pro and con arguments that help them quickly understand the significance of their voting decision.

The petition method ensures that the petition is drafted and promoted by devotees of the cause. The petition itself may have subtly emotive wording. The devotees release only information favorable to the petition. An anti-petition group has to be formed by others, if they start quickly enough and can raise the funds. In most cases, the petition group is far better funded than the anti-petition group.

The Boule method requires that the initial Initiative drafts from whatever source have an informative preamble plus fair pro and con arguments attached. If a proposed Initiative advances, the Boule members in favor of the Initiative enhance the clarity and content of the pro arguments, while those against the Initiative do likewise for the con arguments. These are not the arguments of devotees, but of a random sample of the voters who have the duty, time and responsibility to evaluate the Initiative fully. This means that the preamble and pros and cons of an Initiative will be truly helpful to the voters. Moreover, each Candidate Initiative must be posted on the Internet; it will also be published by the press, and perhaps other media. The public will have at least two months to comment via publication (letters to the editor, advertisements, etc.) giving feedback to the Boule, which can then take action to remedy any deficiencies in the Initiative.

Citizens Registered to Vote vs. Eligible to Vote

The key function of the Boule is to select and develop Initiatives on which the People would desire to vote if they had a comprehensive opportunity to think about the issues. There are two defensible ways to define who the “People” are for this purpose:

  1. Registered Voters. Registered voters number about 135 million (2005 estimate). This seems to be the best population from which to select the Boule if its primary function were to predict the outcome of the vote on Initiatives. It is also the population who can sign signature petitions to qualify initiatives in the States.

  2. Citizens who are Eligible to Vote. There are about 195 million (2005 estimate) Citizens who are eligible to vote, whether or not they are registered. This seems the most inclusive population from which to select the Boule. Many eligible voters do not register because they: do not wish to be called upon for jury duty, are disenchanted with the current political system, or not interested in voting. Nevertheless, for the most part, they are as good tax-paying Citizens as those registered to vote.

Since the Boule is a surrogate for the People, and the right of tax-payers to be enfranchised is clear, the Boule membership should be drawn from as many U.S. Citizens as reasonably feasible. For this reason, the second definition of the People is used in this Solution.

Citizens under 18 years of age (25.7 percent of the total) are not included in the Boule, assuming traditionally that their judgment had not developed sufficiently and that their parents and other Citizens will represent them adequately. Polls of their opinions can be taken and they can be invited to present opinions before the Boule.

Admittedly, including Citizens who are eligible to vote will reduce the Boule's ability to predict the vote on Initiatives. Moreover, because of its deliberative nature, Boule Members will no longer reflect the views of the population from which they were drawn (this is true for either definition of who are the "People"). Fortunately, these two issues can be roughly compensated by having Members vote twice on Candidate Initiative. The first time doing their best to make the best choices on behalf of all U.S. Citizens. The second time, Members who normally do not vote should abstain, and those who normally do vote should vote as if they had not been through a thorough the deliberative process. This second vote will provide a prediction of the nationwide vote, and comparison with the nationwide vote will test it probity. Further refinement of the second vote should be able make it a useful predictive tool.

The decision to include Citizens who are eligible but not registered to vote may have an additional benefit: the Initiative process will give them a genuine stake in participation, and may increase voter turnout.

Absence of Excessive Emotion

It is always preferable that important issues such as those contained in Initiatives be considered without excessive emotion, otherwise decisions tend to be made hastily and without proper consideration to all the consequences.

The petition method tends to create an emotional environment from the start. People must be encouraged to sign the petition, and therefore the petition may contain emotional words or have some catchy description attributed that make people feel good about it—even if in reality the description has little to do with the content of the petition.

The Boule method takes a deliberative approach, and does not need to promote it to collect signatures. The gag order stops the press and media from stirring up a lot of emotion, at least until the Candidate Initiative is published.

State and Congressional Involvement

Congress and State Legislatures may wish to initiate, modify or repeal Initiatives for good reason, and can propose Initiatives to do so. Their Members are also our most knowledgeable citizens, able to produce the highest quality of Initiatives. A critical benefit for Government is that by proposing an Initiative they will be able to advance some intractable issues that they otherwise find very difficult to address and have to table.

The petition method does not easily accommodate Initiatives that are initiated by Government, because the citizen support group of devotees may or may not form, and it is inappropriate that Government spend public money to promote them.

The Boule readily accommodates both Congressional and State sponsored Initiatives. In fact, the Boule rules specifically expedite Congress and State Legislature initiated Initiative, and especially a bipartisan Initiative.

No Control by Special Interests Groups

Using the petition method, wealthy special interest groups would become deeply involved in Initiatives that affect them. Huge amount of money are available to influence the outcomes. In California alone, for example, the spending on Initiatives peaked at $140,000,000 in 1996, and it was widely felt that special interest groups had captured the Initiative process.

The petition method at the nationwide level involves substantial organization and funding. It is exactly this environment that makes special interest groups such an enticing source of support and funding. If sufficient funds are available, it is almost assured that enough signatures can be obtained by paid signature gathers. Qualification of a petition to be on the ballot in this way is no guarantee that the Initiative is any good or well thought out—in fact it almost assures that the Initiative represents the interests of a relatively small number of special interest groups or wealthy individuals and not the wishes or will of the People.

In fact, a new profession of "Initiative Project Manager" has arisen in some States. For a substantial fee, these professionals will undertake to manage an initiative from the draft stage through getting the petition signatures and qualifying it for the ballot. They may also manage the campaign to promote the initiative to the voters and potentially get it passed. All it takes is a healthy amount of money.

The Boule method, on the other hand, has five powerful features that make it virtually impossible (though no doubt they will try) for special interest groups to affect the language of the Initiatives or whether or not they are placed on the ballot:

  1. There can be no direct communication or contact between those who initiate a proposed Initiative and the Boule Members.

  2. The penalties for trying to tamper with the Boule are severe, and involve mandatory time in a federal penitentiary—a major deterrent for those who are sufficiently wealthy that a fine is not a serious curb on their behavior.

  3. A gag order is in effect, so special interests cannot easily get information or use the Media to influence the Boule.

  4. Law enforcement will operate sting traps and Boule Members will be offered rewards to detect and prosecute tampering.

  5. An elected or appointed body is inescapably subject to improper influence, whereas a Boule of randomly selected voters serving for only one year and protected like a grand jury is, for practical purposes, virtually immune to tampering or corruption.

There is of course, nothing to stop any individual or group from trying to influence the voters via the media after the Initiative has been published and made known—it is their constitutional right. However, in the run-up to the elections the voters still have the Boule's preamble and pro and con arguments attached to the Initiative to help balance their influence.

Response to Urgent Issues

In this Information age decision-making has to keep pace with affairs, otherwise actions can be too late to influence the outcome.

The petition method has an inherent time delay while preparations are made; signatures collected; and then validated, counted, and certified. Even in California's 2003 gubernatorial recall scramble, it took 169 days, from announcing the plans on February 5th to certification of the petition results on July 24th. Most petitions do not have the financial resources that were available for the California recall and take much longer.

In the Boule method, a proposed Initiative could theoretically go from initial publication for the attention of the Boule to approval for the ballot in under 60 days. However, this would be a most undesirable rush, and the system is set up to a deliberative pace to avoid hasty decisions. Still, Boule's deliberative pace is about as fast as a mad scramble for the petition method. If, at a later date, the People decide that they wish to have a faster response, the ability is there.

Conclusions

Introduction of the Boule Method for selecting and managing the Initiative process as an effective and efficient system is probably the single most important and key feature of this planned constitutional Amendment. Without it, the system probably could not work.

It is clear from the above discussion that:

  1. The Boule is an effective and reliable method that makes Initiatives feasible in a large democracy; whereas the petition method cannot be used effectively in a large democracy.

  2. The Boule permits all U.S. citizens to have input to the creation and development of Initiatives. This is not only fair and appropriate, but provides sufficient real power that they no longer feel powerless.

  3. The Citizens' Boule provides the States and Congress a useful ability to initiate and make use of Initiatives.

  4. The petition method or any use of appointed or elected organizations are all subject to pervasive influence by special interest groups, which defeats the Solution. The Boule approach does not suffer from this defect.

  5. The Initiatives chosen by the Boule will generally be precisely those the Electorate most want to see on the ballot; whereas the petition method is a hit or miss affair that wastes much signature-gathering effort and often overloads voters and wastes their time.

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 November 07, 2013