Despite Covid-19, digital signature collection has not taken off

Signatures and social distancing: difficult to reconcile. Keystone

The coronavirus pandemic is weighing on democracies, with many initiatives blocked by difficulties collecting signatures on the streets. What are the digital alternatives?

This content was published on November 19, 2020 - 14:00

With the pandemic turning the world on its head, one might suppose that the time has come for the digital collection of signatures for initiatives, referendums and petitions.

But at a time when collecting on the street is difficult, the impetus for introducing alternative means is still absent, despite the fact that digital collection tools have proven themselves in practice for over ten years now. Since 2007, the two leaders in the field, avaaz.org and change.org, have drawn millions to sign up to campaigns on their platforms.

So far only a few countries have turned to digital tools to collect signatures, among them Austria, Finland, the Netherlands, Latvia, Denmark, some individual US states and – to some extent – Switzerland.

Tool for petitions

Around the world, it’s striking that digital signature collection is primarily used for non-binding initiatives, i.e. petitions. The more legally binding the campaign is – whether an initiative or a referendum – the more the rules are based on traditional, analogue signature collecting.

In the US, however, the pandemic has given new momentum. Massachusetts and Ohio were the first states to give the green light to electronic signatures for people’s initiatives, says Evan Ravitz, the founder of Strengthen Direct Democracy, a platform that seeks to reinforce the rights of citizens as laid out in the US constitution. Initiatives to promote e-collecting have also been launched in Arkansas, Montana, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Arizona – where citizens can support candidates for office online to ensure they get on the ballot.

“Everyone here knows that collecting signatures online is safer than doing it in person,” says Ravitz, referring to the risk of Covid-19. Even politicians who were previously against e-collecting are now in favour of it.

E-collecting is an issue in Asia too: in Taiwan a law introducing signature collecting for people’s initiatives is planned. However, fear of Chinese manipulation has so far prevented it from happening.

Europe is where e-collecting is most common. The biggest impetus for this has come from the European Union’s European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). Such an initiative comes into being when 1 million EU citizens from at least seven EU member states sign up to a proposal within 12 months – digitally.

European Citizens’ Initiative

Since 2012, 73 EU-wide initiatives have been launched. At the moment, signatures are being collected for 11 projects. Most fail at the collection stage, and the European Commission has only formally taken up four initiatives so far. It has rejected 14 valid European Citizens’ Initiatives. The best known was “Stop TTIP”, an initiative against a transatlantic free trade agreement with the U.S. that was signed by a record 3.3 million EU citizens. The Commission rejected it in 2014, a decision that was later annulled in 2017 by the European General Court.

From November 16-20, 2020, the European Citizens’ Initiative Week takes place in Brussels. The goal is to strengthen the EU’s most important direct democracy instrument.

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The fateful Brexit plebiscite

The European Citizens’ Initiative isn’t, however, binding for the European Commission. EU leaders still have trouble trusting EU citizens with direct-democracy instruments.

“The Brexit plebiscite reinforced the general mistrust in Brussels – there was a fear of waking sleeping dogs with referendums,” says Xavier Dutoit. A Swiss expert in open data, Dutoit has been developing tools for democratic online campaigns for more than ten years. His company Fix the Status Quo is based in the Estonian capital Tallinn, a digitalisation hub.

Apart from the EU’s own platform, Dutoit’s system for online signature collection is the only one to be certified for European Citizens’ Initiatives. He has so far worked on nine of them.

Setback in Switzerland

Switzerland has a special position – in part because it has the strongest direct democracy system on a national level. But also because e-collecting was until recently a part of the government’s “Electronic Voting” program, whose goal is to introduce e-voting as the third official channel for voting in Switzerland (after in-person and postal voting).

But in 2017 the Federal Chancellery delivered a setback to digital signature collection. This was disappointing for Daniel Graf, who founded the platform Wecollect in 2016. Committees can now only use Wecollect for “semi-digital” signature collections for people’s initiatives and referendums. It is semi-digital because supporters have to print, sign and send their forms by post.

“The signal was already sent in 2002, when the government decided to prioritise e-voting over e-collecting,” Graf says. “It has stuck to that to this day.” He has since transferred his platform to the Foundation for Direct Democracy.

Now is the moment?

Sophie Fürst sits on this foundation’s board. She is convinced that the coronavirus pandemic has clearly demonstrated that Swiss democracy needs e-collecting. “Collecting signatures depends on direct contact with people, which is difficult at the moment,” Fürst argues. “Signature-collecting has become less safe, more complicated and more expensive in the last months.”

The lockdown and restrictive measures have caused initiatives and referendums to be interrupted or threatened with cancellation, she says. One prominent victim was the people’s initiative for a moratorium on e-voting: the committee abandoned collecting signatures in June after the lockdown.

In the five years since it was founded, Wecollect has proven that it fulfils a need: so far, the tool has collected almost 520,000 semi-digital signatures for a total of 37 initiatives.

Xavier Dutoit in Tallinn says he would welcome e-collecting in Switzerland. He sees advantages, beyond the pandemic, in the lower cost for committees. In addition, actors and supporters of a campaign can create new communities, he reckons.

Hype or politics?

At the same time, Dutoit has concerns. He says Switzerland might sacrifice offline connections, which are unquestionably a strength of its direct democracy. And e-collecting could prove a boost for “slactivism” – a term for short-lived, unbinding engagements without deep-seated conviction for political change.

Dutoit also raises the trust question. “Everyone understands the pen-and-paper system,” he says. “But how many understand the coding algorithms which guarantee confidentiality and integrity for online signatures? And if people don’t understand the process, how can they trust the result?”

But he is certain that Switzerland is ideally suited to experiment with e-collecting and to develop it further. “It just requires time and practice to win the confidence of all citizens,” he says.

Translated from German by Catherine Hickley, swissinfo.ch

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