Boulder sticks with in-person petitions despite guidance from government, health officials

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Saturday, April 25, 2020

It was 10:28 p.m. on Tuesday when city council first hinted it might abandon attempts to ensure direct democracy could continue unimpeded by COVID-19. By 11:15, the fifth and final vote was informally cast, putting a nail in the coffin holding circulators’ hopes that they could gather signatures online rather than in-person — a difficult and possibly dangerous task that flies in the face of guidance from state government and health officials.

Council’s refusal to make concessions sent organizers into an uproar. They penned op-eds, courted media coverage and sought the assistance of civil liberty advocates, pointing out the hypocrisy of city leaders meeting remotely yet encouraging residents to stay home — all while insisting that signatures could still be collected safely.

“While we want to encourage people to practice social distancing, that doesn’t make it impossible to collect paper signatures,” councilman Bob Yates said. “We’re not inhibiting democracy: COVID is inhibiting democracy.”

Legit concerns or politics at play?

Yates and other members in the majority — Mark Wallach, Mayor Sam Weaver, Mary Young and Mirabai Nagle — argued that solutions to move petitions online were inadequate and left the city vulnerable to legal action.

City Attorney Tom Carr previously testified that Boulder should be able to defend itself against legal challenges, since voters OK’d electronic signature-gathering in 2018. The practice is enshrined in the city’s charter and an in-development online system will be operational next year.

The proposed solutions weren’t perfect, Carr warned. Random contacts by the city clerk and publishing the names of signers could root out fraudulent activity but likely wouldn’t be as secure as the verification process currently in place for paper petitions.

“I have not yet heard any way of fraud prevention and validating who it was that signed” online, said Weaver, who was the deciding voice on the otherwise split council. “I’m really really uncomfortable with every single thing I’ve heard.”

Circulators have been asking for assistance since mid-March. At first, council seemed incline to lend a hand, putting out the idea that if organizers could demonstrate enough community support, council would place their measures on the ballot itself, an option available even under normal circumstances.

However, the April 14 discussion that was supposed to lay out qualifying criteria instead began with council questioning the merits of the petitions. With a lack of majority support among council members, talk turned instead to moving signature collection online.

But council’s consideration of the petitions’ content — and therefore a belief among many that elected officials were being motivated by politics — persisted. Mayor Sam Weaver seemed to confirm this in what ended up being the closing words on the topic Tuesday.

“As much as I want to preserve direct democracy, I don’t see anything in front of us that has to get done this year,” Weaver said. “The subjects of these things are not things that are imminent.”

As organizers have pointed out, not all elections are created equal. This is a presidential election year, which typically have much higher turnout. In 2016, for instance, 89.5% of active, registered voters in Boulder County cast a ballot, compared to just 52.4% in this fall’s off-year election.

Political risk level: Low

Four of the five council members who shot down online petitioning this year are up for re-election in 2021, should they choose to run. But their choice may have been a politically safe one, if public emails to council are any indication.

Residents from both sides of Boulder’s political aisle — which tends to split along issues of growth and development — wrote with concerns about online petitioning proposals. There were noticeable differences in their requests for action.

Those aligned with the minority asked that council revisit the idea of placing the measures on the ballot by a vote of members. Among them was Matt Benjamin, a member of the Campaign Finance/Election working group and spokesperson for the Boulder Coalition, which endorsed Aaron Brockett, Rachel Friend and Junie Joseph.

“We should be less concerned about the fear of fraud and more concerned about the protecting our democratic principles,” Benjamin wrote. “We are in extraordinary times, and we should ease the process and not make it harder for initiatives to get on the ballot.”

Co-chairs of PLAN-Boulder County (which endorsed Weaver, Young, Wallach, Nagle and Adam Swetlik) implored council to do nothing, as did former PLAN head, city councilor and election working group member Steve Pomerance, in a series of emails.

“It is CRITICAL that the Council NOT ALLOW proposals to use the pandemic as an excuse to bypass current legal processes,” Pomerance wrote in one. “I hope that you will not bend over backwards to make this too easy,” he wrote in another.

Pomerance also authored an opinion piece for the Daily Camera opposing one of the initiatives. Two more are forthcoming.

Secretary of state warns against petitioning

The majority of council expressed a belief that in-person petitioning could still be done safely and successfully, despite the fact that typical places for gathering signatures — the farmers market, outside the library, on Pearl Street Mall — are closed.

“Boulder, as we always say, we’re special,” councilwoman Nagle said. “I’m sure the leading minds can come up with a workaround.”

In a segment that aired Wednesday, 9News reported that the secretary of state advised against collecting signatures in person. The governor’s office is working on possible solutions, reporter Marshall Zelinger said.

A spokesperson for the secretary of state did not respond to requests for comment.

Whatever emerges, if anything, may be too little, too late: Two of the petition efforts have a hard deadline of June 5 to remit the required signatures, a date City Attorney Carr on Tuesday said was immovable. With Boulder County recently extending its stay-at-home order through May 8, that leaves mere weeks to garner thousands of signatures in a time of social distancing.

In a Daily Camera op-ed, organizers for one of the petition efforts warned that circulators could become “vectors” for the virus’ spread. ABC News reported this week that 19 new cases of COVID-19 may be linked to Wisconsin’s recent elections after officials declined to postpone it.

Representatives for two petition campaigns on Friday sent emails to local health officials and law enforcement outlining plans to have “signing events” help in a “spacious public place,” as well as signature gathering at grocery stores and door-to-door canvassing. Organizers asked if their plans were safe and legal.

No response had been returned as of Saturday morning.

Read a play-by-play of Tuesday’s discussion.

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle
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