Problems plague early tests of Boulder’s online petition system

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Saturday, Jan. 30, 202

The launch of Boulder’s new online petitioning system has been marked with frustrations from would-be users, unable to sign a sample petition and discouraged by the multi-step process involving (at times) three levels of government. Local officials responded quickly, claiming all identified issues have been or will be addressed. A citizen group, hoping to use the nascent technology, says the shaky rollout has given them pause about being the first real-world test case.

Read: What does it take to use Boulder’s new online petitioning system?

Boulder Direct Democracy Online has been highly anticipated since voters OK’d allowing electronic signature gathering in November 2018. The city tapped Arizona-based Runbeck Election Services in December 2019 to develop a proprietary system.

The portal uses two-factor authentication to verify that users are registered to vote in the city of Boulder, via a phone number attached to state voter registration records. Boulder County — in charge of elections and associated data — shares an updated list of registered voters with the city every day. Once logged in, users can peruse active petitions, see how many other people (and who) have signed, and choose to add their own name.

A digital option would have come in handy last year, when five separate groups attempted to place measures on the ballot. After a mid-year rule change, only one succeeded, though three groups gathered enough signatures under original guidelines issued by the city. Another earned ballot access via council approval, but Bedrooms Are For People — which gathered more verified signatures than any other campaign — was left off.

Bedrooms, which hopes to amend Boulder’s rules on unrelated adults living together, isn’t sure the current system is an improvement over ink-and-paper petitioning. Of 40 volunteers recruited to test BDDO, only 19 were successful, leaders said.

“It’s disappointing the online system isn’t as ready to go live as one would hope,” said Chelsea Castellano, one of Bedrooms’ organizers. “But we are working with the city to make sure they’re aware of the issues we have encountered. It seems they are actively working to try to address them.”

“City staff is doing a great job,” added co-organizer Eric Budd. “They’re doing everything they can. These issues we’re finding is issues you would only find if you did a larger-scale set of testing.”

Boulderites (beyond Budd and Castellano) have raised the lack of broad testing in the past. The system will be essentially debuting with a live petition; larger numbers of users may result in the daylighting of more issues. Fixes may be found, but consequences for direct democracy will be real.

“Of course, do we wish these things were fixed before the week we were going to start collecting signatures, yes we do,” Castellano said. “The fact the city didn’t prioritize this or work through the issues enough to make this a really great, viable option is… It seems like it could be better.”

Staff set then cancelled a virtual meeting with Bedrooms organizers, requested by Castellano over technological concerns.

“Due to the level of interest from many in the community as well as members of council,” wrote city spokesperson Shannon Aulabaugh, “we feel that it is most appropriate to reschedule this meeting and also provide more public notice to allow additional interested constituents to participate in a public forum. This will also allow additional staff members to be on the call to take questions.”

A new date for the now-public meeting is TBD.

Fixed and unfixed

The first issue surfaced by the test petition was that some users were not receiving confirmation codes. That was resolved, according to Aulabaugh, and the total number of successful signings jumped from 19 on Thursday morning to 32 by Friday afternoon.

This roadblock led to the discovery of another problem: Some voters have an unlisted phone number associated with their account, an option available at the time of in-person registration. Those aren’t showing up in Boulder’s system; even if voters have a phone number on record, the city’s data doesn’t include it.

On Wednesday, Elections Administrator Dianne Marshall emailed Budd about the problem.

“We have identified that the BDDO system does not include voter phone information when voters have requested to have their phone number designated as ‘unlisted,'” Marshall wrote. “This is causing an error message of ‘no phone number on file’ when the voter can see one listed in their voter registration. The required two-factor authentication cannot be completed as it relies on an active phone number.”

Marshall did not offer a fix, but instead said impacted users should contact Boulder County to change the unlisted designation.

Budd and Castellano think it’s part of the data-sharing agreement worked out by the city and county, in which a list of registered voters is input into BDDO every day. Unlisted numbers may be omitted for legal reasons.

“Essentially, when you check that box (on your registration), there’s an assumption your phone number isn’t going to be shared with external partners,” Castellano said. She believes the county sharing those numbers with the city would not run afoul of that legal expectation.

“It still wouldn’t be” public, she said. “You’re just using it” for confirmation purposes. “There’s a way it could be shared within the definition of what makes something unlisted.”

Information from the Boulder County Clerk’s office indicates that may indeed be the fix: “We will work with the City of Boulder to update their proposed language,” spokesperson Mircalla Wozniak wrote in response to emailed questions.

Boulder Beat was unable to confirm Bedrooms’ theory with the city or county. The clerk’s office is closed on Fridays (the interview with Bedrooms took place on Friday afternoon) and Aulaubaugh did not address the unlisted issue in her Thursday response to emailed questions.

‘Every step is more friction’

“At best,” half of voters have a phone number associated with their registration, according to Wozniak. They can be added online, but it’s a multi-day process. Hopeful petition signers must first update their registration with the Secretary of State, then wait for the change to be made at the county level. Staff tries to update files every day if changes are submitted before 5 p.m., except for Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

“We operate that it is 72 business hours,” Wozniak wrote.

For voters with unlisted numbers, an online update won’t do the trick.

“This means that at some point the voter physically came into our office and requested that the number not be public or they registered in person and requested (essentially, keep phone number on record for elections office, but have unlisted in public voter file),” Wozniak wrote. “The only way to request this or update this is to physically come into our office.”

“That’s a step too far” for many people, Castellano said.

Even without a trip to the county clerk’s office, she and Budd worry that many users will be discouraged by the work involved, and the possible three-day wait to add a phone number. “Every additional step is more friction,” Budd said.

The use of phone numbers has also raised privacy concerns from other critics of the city’s system, since voter records are publicly available information. Boulder has maintained it is the most secure and efficient method. Postcards, suggested by some, lack security — their contents visible to all — and mail adds significant costs, city officials have argued.

On the fence

As of Saturday morning, 37 people had successfully endorsed the test petition on BDDO. How many attempts were made is unknown.

“We have a system to track this data that will be available for the actual petitions,” Aulabaugh wrote, “but not for the preview.”

Wozniak said requests for registration updates were not noticeably higher than normal. There was a slight increase the week of Jan. 6 — when the system was still being tested internally — but settled back down to normal for the remainder of the month.

Bedrooms’ debut is looming. The city has until Friday, Feb. 5 to approve the petition for circulation, Budd and Castellano said. It will be posted online when that is complete, according to Aulabaugh.

Though the campaign can collect signatures online and in-person, only one set can be submitted for city approval. Online and in-person signatures can’t be combined, meaning Bedrooms would have to gather 3,336 valid digital signatures and another 3,336 physical signatures if they hope to meet legal thresholds.

Although it provides a backup if problems persist with BDDO, Castellano said it defeats the purpose of an online system — particularly during a pandemic. Real-world petitioning didn’t lead to widespread outbreaks last year, but “it’s still better for our organizers and the community if we can limit in-person exposure.”

Running dual efforts can create confusion among the public as well, as Bedrooms’ Change.org petition demonstrated last year when the group still believed city council would provide alternatives to in-person collection. Many people thought that, since they’d already signed somewhere, they didn’t need to repeat the process once in-person petitioning began.

The city is exploring alterations to BDDO that may allow for combo campaigns, but not until 2022 or later. Boulder Direct Democracy Online, despite its bugs and limitations, looks to be the best way to move forward this year, Castellano said.

At the end of the day, it’s the safest way we have to make our petition.”

But, Budd added, “We haven’t really made the decision yet, frankly.”

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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