Boulder will not pursue online petitioning until the 2020 elections and may altogether abandon electronic signature gathering after public feedback that suggested it would give an advantage to wealthy special interest groups. The upcoming November votes will take place under tighter rules for campaign spending and advertising advanced by council Tuesday night.
Proposed changes to petitioning and campaign regulations were brought forward by Boulder’s 10-member campaign finance/elections working group. Voters last November (71% of them, anyway) approved a change to the city charter that would allow non-paper petitioning pending new ordinances from city council.
The idea came from Denver, which allows electronic signature gathering via an iPad or other tablet. Though the working group recommended implementing both online and electronic petitioning, at least one member who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting felt that the two options would have vastly different impacts on democracy.
Using expensive tablets to collect signatures would give an advantage to the wealthy, argued Evan Ravitz. Already, he said, the use of tablets in Denver increases the number of signatures when compared to pen-and-paper gathering.
That’s true, said Alton Dillard, communications director for the Denver clerk and recorder. In the 2015 municipal elections, just 3% of signatures gathered electronically were rejected, whereas 30% of paper petition signatures were.
Denver won national recognition for the technology. Advocates say it increases participation and efficiency, citing the higher rate of accepted signatures. But Ravitz contended that is an advantage for those with tablets, who will have to spend less time and gather fewer signatures to reach the threshold for petitions.
“No one will use it except for wealthy people,” Ravitz said. “That creates a special interest group.”
Online petitions, in contrast, would democratize the process, proponents contend. It would eliminate the need for petition-takers, who have been subject to harassment in recent elections and reach people in their homes. They also would allow signers the chance to research the issue before adding their name — something paper petitions rarely allow for, noted Carolyn Bninski, during the public hearing. Another non-paper perk: Online petitions could be un-signed if someone changed their mind, Ravitz pointed out.
Staff had proposed a two-phase approach, whereby electronic petitioning was adopted first, followed by online petitions. Software can be licensed from Denver for electronic petitioning, speeding up that implementation, though elections staff in the city might not be available to advise in time for the 2019 elections. Estimated upfront costs are $21,000, with ongoing licensing fees of $1,500 per year.
Online petitioning “is a different beast,” noted Matt Benjamin, another member of the working group. There aren’t many models or much existing software to use for online petitions. Security and privacy concerns are abundant.
Still, online petitions should be pursued before electronic, Bninski and Ravitz argued.
“The priority is to do what the public thought you were doing,” Bninski said, “which is online petitions at your computer, at home.”
Electronic petitioning “is a distraction,” Ravitz said. “It’s like natural gas: it was supposed to be a a bridge to the future (but in reality) it’s destroying the planet.”
Given that it’s unclear if electronic petitioning could be ready to go in 2019, Benjamin said it “makes sense” to abandon the two-phrase plan and “go straight to online petitioning.”
Council agreed with that approach.
“It will take us at least to 2020 to get something online,” councilman Sam Weaver said. “Doing something temporarily for one year that might not even be used, it’s a distraction.”
Tighter rules on campaign spending, advertising adopted
Council on Tuesday also adopted changes to campaign spending and advertising rules, including:
A new definition for advocacy: Previously, there were certain terms or phrases that counted as advocating for a particular cause or candidate. So an ad that said, “Vote for Bob for city council” would be subject to campaign laws, but an ad that said, “Bob is a good person” would not. The new rules would include the latter example and make it subject to campaign disclosure requirements.
Changes to the matching fund program: City council candidates who agree to a cap on campaign expenditures can receive matching funds. This year, the limit will be raised to $20,740, and it will be adjusted every two years according to inflation.
Stricter disclosure requirements: All campaign ads will have to include a disclaimer of who paid for them, as will solicitations for funds have to include a disclosure of the group or persons behind the request. Groups advocating for or against a ballot measure will have to disclose the top three donors behind the campaign.
Adjustments to the complaint process: The city clerk, rather than the city manager, will be the chief administrator in allegations of election and campaign violations. Both the initial complaint and the clerk’s final decision would be made public.
Council unanimously advanced the changes. “This modernizes our campaign finance laws in a way that reflects our values,” said Mayor Suzanne Jones.
Shay Castle, firstname.lastname@example.org, @shayshinecastle