Wednesday, April 24, 2019
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, chair 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).”
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.”
To view a Twitter thread of Tuesday’s discussion, click here. (Note: This thread also includes discussions of planning priorities and an affordable housing project at 30th/Pearl.)