Digital Signatures For Referendums Are Reshaping Italian Law

Last July, the Italian Parliament approved an amendment that allows collecting digital signatures for referendum campaigns, making it easier to meet the 500,000 signatures threshold to launch a referendum. Pressure groups and activists welcomed the new rule. At the same time, critics fear there will be an avalanche of referendums and are proposing law adjustments.

The amendment positively affected two ongoing campaigns hosted by Luca Coscioni Association (ALC), a non-profit foundation for civil rights. The first campaign, concerning euthanasia, received a boost of 300,000 digital signatures after collecting 500,000 physical subscriptions. The second campaign on cannabis legalization is only taking place online. It reached the threshold in one week, in a never before seen mobilization.

A person is signing for a referendum. Courtesy of Samuele Degradi

Samuele Degradi, the community organizer and activist for ALC, explained his point of view to 9-to-5. He called the digital signature an essential innovation because it gives the possibility to sign from home. “It’s about allowing everyone to stand for battles they care about,” Degradi said, referring to people with disabilities or communities living in remote areas.

In Degradi’s opinion, there is no risk of there being a referendum avalanche. He mentioned that the Italian law forbids referendums on specific themes, such as international treaties or the public budget. “The Constitutional Court decides which referendum questions are admissible or not, blocking unconstitutional proposals,” he added.

“We organized a seven-day hunger strike in July to pressure the government to approve the amendment on digital signatures,” Degradi recalled. “The referendums address problems which politics ignore,” he said, arguing that “parties discuss laws and rules instead of real issues, such as civil rights.”

Nevertheless, critics’ voices are raising, asking for technical adjustments to the entire referendum law. Among them is Francesco Clementi, associate professor of comparative public law at Perugia University and constitutional law expert. 9-to-5 reached out to him by telephone, asking for his opinion.

Professor Francesco Clementi. Photo: Francesco Pierantoni

“I think that this amendment changes referendums’ timeline,” he said. Clementi added that the Constitutional Court should move its decision on the question’s admissibility forward since now “it is far easier to reach the 500,000 signatures threshold.”

“Today, the Court expresses its decision within four months after the campaign ends,” the professor explained, “this step should happen at 100,000 signatures, for instance.” Clementi described his idea as a way to give activists more consideration because “in case of rejection, the campaign stops before organizers put further efforts and money on it.”

A second correction proposed by Clementi aims to change quorum rules. In Italian law, quorum set the minimum number of voters to consider a referendum valid. Today its value is equal to 50%+1 of total voters.

“Quorum should be based on the latest political election’s voter participation instead of the number of voters,” Clementi said. He pointed out that this modification needs constitutional reform. Still, he argued that it would increase participation, giving people a more important role in political life.

Clementi also stated that “every innovation introduced by technology requires adjustment to laws, to adapt the mechanics of Parliament to the changes of our time.”

Credits: Michele Bitetto on Unsplash

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