Online petitions get pushed to 2021 in Boulder

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Wednesday, April 24, 2019 (Updated Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022)

Online petitioning may not happen in Boulder elections until at 2021 as the city struggles to find a secure system to implement. Voters may have to approve yet another change to the city’s charter to make the petitions legal.

The obstacles are causing consternation among members of the election and campaign finance working group, who accused the city attorney of willfully delaying direct democracy. Boulder leaders maintain that, when it comes to elections, safety trumps speed.

Voters in November altered Boulder’s charter so that non-paper petitions would be allowed, via ballot measure 2G. At the same time, the passage of 2F required the city clerk to compare petitions signatures to signatures on record, from driver’s license and past ballots, etc.

Staff, in notes to council, said that requirement would completely preclude the ability to allow online petitions, since “signing” them doesn’t actually produce a handwritten signature. City Attorney Tom Carr walked that back a bit Tuesday.

“I probably made too much of that in my memo,” he said, “and I apologize for that.”

However, he still wants to purse a ballot measure this year to again change the charter to allow online petitions to be verified using other means, such a driver license or state-issued ID number.

“There are good arguments that we don’t need to do it, but I don’t want to rely on good arguments when it comes to elections,” Carr said.

Council agreed. “Better safe than sorry,” said councilwoman Lisa Morzel. Aaron Brockett added that the move is “an abundance of caution, but harmless.”

Still, actually finding or creating a software system that can handle online petitions and provide tight enough security is proving challenging. There is a similar system in Arizona, but it has some holes, Carr said, such as an inability to filter out bots from real humans. The city is also working with nonpartisan, nonprofit organization Maplight around their petitioning software.

Neither are a “one-to-one match” for what Boulder wants to do, wrote Matt Benajmin, member of the elections/campaign working group, in am email to city leadership following the meeting. Arizona’s only handles candidate petitions; while Maplight’s free software could possibly be used, city rules normally dictate a competitive bidding process.

“We can’t have things fast, cheep and good,” Benjamin wrote. “You get to pick (two).”

View a thread of Tuesday’s discussion
Note: This thread also includes discussions of planning priorities and an affordable housing project at 30th/Pearl.

Evan Ravitz and Steve Pomerance, also members of the working group, contend that Maplight’s system could be adapted easily for Boulder’s needs. In emails to council, they accused Carr of lying and obstruction.

“I never intended this would delay this process,” Carr said in response Tuesday, noting the heavy criticism. “I think this improves the process. We’re excited to work on this. It’s going to be something good; it’s just not something you can (rush).”

But, he maintained, it would be a “heavy lift” to get online petitioning up and running by 2020. Staff is trying, he said, and will keep council updated.

Council, for their part, urged caution over speed, while acknowledging the strong demand from the public.

“This is the field I work in, creating custom software,” Brockett said. A year timeframe “is aggressive. It’s more important that we do it right.”

Author’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that Matt Benjamin was a member but not chair of the Elections Working Group.

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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0 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I, as a member of the city’s campaign finance and elections working group, got the group to unanimously endorse it, Council to unanimously vote it onto the ballot, and the voters to pass it 71 to 29%.

    Longtime councilman Steve Pomerance, also a group member, and I have said that since the City attorney approved this in August for the ballot, it should NOT have to be redone at the ballot again. The City attorney has indicated NO new legal decisions or other changes that would create a problem., a national nonprofit whose software is part of the California Secretary of State’s website, which you can try via maplight’s website, offered Boulder a free turnkey open source online petition system (for free!) at the March 5th city council meeting. The city hasn’t even called them yet.

    The questions Boulder’s remaining journalists should be investigating is: Is the staff’s obstruction, which has been going on for over a year by City attorneys supposedly helping the working group, because:

    1. Some council members don’t really want this.

    2. City attorney Tom Carr himself hates it. He told City Council on December 19th 2017 that “direct democracy undermines representative government.”

    3. The same powerful forces that suckered Colorado into passing Amendment 71 in 2016 don’t want it. Like big oil and gas, who pumped some 40 million dollars into Amendment 71. Like the American legislative exchange Council ALEC, the right wing group which has a concerted effort against ballot initiatives across the country. Like local business people who can twist the arms of politicians, but can’t manipulate ballot initiatives nearly as well.

    Boulder used to be famous for ballot initiatives, including the country’s first voter-approved open space, and the country’s first gay rights law:

    But in the last 20 years there have only been three successful ones: 1999’s public campaign financing and 2016’s Council term limits and sugary drink tax.

    We should have an online process, instead of hired harassers begging for signatures in hot parking lots. Our government does everything online and we should have the same frictionless power. This is nothing like online voting, because voting is secret ballot and petitions are open records, identified by name like all Financial transactions online.

    Please let Council know what you think:

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