Referendums and digital signatures: technology is a means, not an end

Created as a pillar of the Digital Italy 2026 strategy associated with the National Recovery and Resilience Plan, the Public Digital Identity System (PDIS) allows citizens to create a digital identity made up of strictly personal credentials issued by identity providers accredited by the Agency for Digital Italy. Recently, the PDIS has been increasingly used to obtain vaccination certificates, consult social security files, and take advantage of other public administration services. There is a goal to enroll 70% of Italians with a digital identity in the next five years, which reveals the Government’s hopes for digitization in the country.

However, an interesting innovation of the PDIS is that it now allows citizens to digitally sign referendums and popular initiative laws. This introduces a risk for a permanent slew of referendum campaigns. Therefore, digital democracy tools must be re-evaluated and altered to prevent misrepresentation.

Last July, the PDIS was extended to allow 500,000 digital signatures for referendums and 50,000 for popular initiative laws in Article 38-quater of the Simplification Decree. Initially, there was little response to this measure. However, controversial cases brought digital signatures into public debate. For cannabis promoters, specifically, digital signatures were solely relied upon, and hundreds of thousands of signatures were collected in less than a week.

However, there is concern that “PDIS democracy” may lead to continuous referendums on less important and desperate topics.

Constitutionalist Francesco Clementi proposes in Sole 24 Ore that raising the number of signatures needed to call a referendum from 500 to 800 thousand may combat this issue. He also proposed modifying the 1970 law establishing referendums and popular legislative initiatives by bringing in the judgement of the Constitutional Court on the admissibility of referendums when 100,000 signatures have been reached. These suggested changes may limit the powers of digital democracy, but they certainly do not eliminate them entirely. Instead, they balance the power of online democracy.

In 2019, ADL Consulting asked if our lives will be heavily affected by changes in democracy caused by the digital revolution in “The era of digital democracy. A challenge for citizens, companies and policy.” While democracy is still constitutional and representative, digital signatures for referendums prove that democratic procedures are being rethought and experimented with so they can be integrated in the best way.