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Day Three of the 2010 Global Forum

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August 3, 2010

By Bailey Ludlam

SAN FRANCISCO, California: As quickly as the global forum arrived, it is already half-way complete. Monday, August 2, marked not only the half-way point of the conference but also the beginning of the global portion and the end of the focus on the United States' form of direct democracy.
UC Hastings College of the Law

In opening remarks California Secretary of State Debra Bowen highlighted some of the many complicated issues in the United States and noted the importance of disclosure and reforming direct democracy into a better tool for citizens around the world. Californians, she said, "do look at the merits and where the money [for a ballot measure] is coming from," prior to making a final decision at the ballot box. This, she said, can be seen clearly in the defeat of measures like this June's Proposition 17 which was primarily funded by Mercury Insurance. However, despite voters actions, Bowen said that disclosure is vital. In keeping with the idea of transparency and disclosure Bowen reported that the secretary of state's office is thinking about launching a wiki-style website where state voters could have an "interactive discussion" about ballot measures.

Voters in the United States have cast ballots for years but in other parts of the world some countries are still struggling not only with the use of direct democracy but the concept itself. Jung-Ok Lee, Korea Democracy Foundation and co-president of the 2009 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in Seoul/Korea, said, although keywords like "global," "democracy," and "modern" are extremely important, the concepts are still very challenging. "Most still think democracy is an old Greek concept," said Lee.

"Petey" the signature gathering robot

According to David Altman, professor, The Catholic University of Chile, only 18 countries have used some form of direct democracy. Several countries, he said, include direct democracy in their constitutions but are not regulated, making it difficult to practice.

"Democracy is a living being. It's never ready. You can't say, 'there is democracy.' It has to develop, grow and change," said Gerald Häfner, Member of European Parliament.

To highlight the many different forms of direct democracy speakers from Taiwan, Switzerland, Brazil, India, the United Kingdom and Nigeria took the stage. One point of dispute among forum attendees was whether some forms of democracy (e.g. plebiscites) should be categorized as "direct democracy." Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform gave a U.S. perspective on the discussion saying that just throwing a measure on the ballot does not always mean that voters have a choice.

Legislatures around the world vary in their activity and influence on direct democracy. Some directly place measures on the ballot, others require that measures be submitted to the legislature prior to being referred to the ballot. Courts, too, have an important role in the process said speakers. In the United States, ballot measures are constantly being challenged on the basis of the single-subject rule. Specifically, in California, according to Dan Kolkey, a former associate justice of the California Court of Appeal and former counsel to Governor Wilson, noted that courts have a tendency to prefer to rule on measures post-election and are cautious to make amendments or remove measures prior to ballots being cast.

Andreas Auer, C2D and law professor, said that in countries like Switzerland and Uruguay, measures are reviewed prior to elections. The difference, he noted, is in the length of the process. In Switzerland, for example, the process before qualifying a measure for the ballot can last four or five years. The impact of court rulings pre or post-elections can be huge, said Joe Grodin, former justice of the California Supreme Court and professor UC Hastings. As a former state supreme court justice Grodin said he has encountered several measures that were written in a confusing manner and pre-election disqualification was certainly necessary. But the court's, he said, need to think their decisions through thoroughly.

Direct democracy around the world is complex not only in definition but in practice as well. One issue, however, that most countries are slowly beginning to tackle is the role technology plays in the process. In the United States, court cases across the country are pending on the validity of using electronic signatures on petitions. Europe, on the other hand, has accepted the practice of using the internet and is currently in the process of developing rules and regulations. Primarily spurred by the adoption of the "European Citizens' Initiative" and the many different countries that plan to be involved in the new process, technology is key said Carsten Berg.

Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation said she is concerned that privacy and transparency will disappear with the implementation of electronic petitions and signatures for the ballot measure process. Michael Marrubio of Verafirma, one of the leading companies advocating for the use of e-signatures in California, assured the panel and the audience, that electronic signatures are secure and are encrypted to ensure protection of personal identities and fraud.

Social Media Panel

Others highlighted concerns about the impact on direct democracy itself. Could technology lead to too much involvement? Ross Day of Common Sense for Oregon said "no." Day argued that while you can access a lot of information online, you can also more easily ignore information. "I would email people I know supported these measures but they would delete, delete, delete," he said. Alexander, however, argued otherwise. She noted that voter fatigue is something that happens even today.

Prior to the end of the technological debate, Day demonstrated a machine, known as "Petey," that he said will soon be at grocery stores and other public locations in the state of Oregon. "Petey" is a computer kiosk that allows citizens to read the petition and print it out prior to signing. Once signed the petitions are dropped in a locked box on the side. Expanding on the project, Day said that possibly one day they may include videos with the petitions so citizens can become more educated on the issues. The machine, contrary to the e-signature discussion, does not currently accept electronic signatures.

In closing Eugene Kim of Blue Oxen led an informal discussion with attendees on the possible impacts and concerns about social networking. Most attendees said that while they were excited for the advancements in technology and the possibility to may even one day vote via the internet, they were concerned with transparency and privacy. While some argued that technology and time would weed out bad programs or services that violated such concerns as privacy, others remained skeptical. Most attendees agreed, however, that technology is here and can help reform direct democracy into a better tool for citizens around the world.

A full downloadable schedule of the July 30-August 4 forum can be found here.

For up to the minute reports, make sure to follow the live tweets at #IR2010.

See also

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