Boulder plans online petitioning changes in 2022, ’23

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Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022

Boulder’s new online petitioning system — tested by just one campaign so far — will be getting some upgrades over 2022 and 2023. The changes will (hopefully) make it easier to use for future petitioners and signers.

Boulder Direct Democracy Online debuted in 2021. Three campaigns sponsored petitions that year; only one opted to go online. It was a success — Bedrooms Are For People won ballot placement, but lost their bid to reform occupancy limits — but not without its challenges.

Users may have to go through several steps to successfully sign a petition. They need their voter ID number (accessible via the Secretary of State’s website) to log in, and a phone number (which, again, has to be added via the SOS site) to verify their identity.

Read: What it takes to use Boulder’s new online petitioning system

More than 3,000 individuals managed to endorse a petition using BDDO, 89% of identified human attempts. (Some 73% of attempts to access the site were by bots, according to the city.) Still, 342 people (10.1%) who tried to use the system couldn’t finish the process.

One of the biggest complaints was around the need for a phone number attached to one’s voter record. Adding one takes a couple days, and several people reported that though their record included a phone number, Boulder’s system didn’t recognize it.

That’s because, many years ago, registering to vote came with the option to make your phone number unlisted — and therefore not part of the official record Boulder uses to verify voters.

“This resulted in the unfortunate occurrence of a voter accessing the system, adding a telephone number and still being unable to access BDDO,” staff wrote in a recent update to city council.

Undoing unlisted numbers requires a physical trip to the county clerk or — during the pandemic — a signed-and-scanned form. The county clerk “owns” that information, and shares it daily with the city of Boulder via an intergovernmental agreement.

The city is working on alternatives to a phone number that can be used to verify voters’ eligibility to sign petitions in Boulder. Social security numbers and driver’s license numbers are being considered, but both need the sign-off from the Secretary of State and Boulder County Clerk.

That change won’t be ready in 2022. Here’s what will:

  • To log in to the system, only the user’s year of birth and voter ID number will be required. First and last name were previously needed. Multiple fields increased the potential for errors, the city found.
  • A note and link will be added to the BDDO home page prompting users to retrieve their voter ID number before logging in, rather than as part of the login process.

One change not being considered, for 2022 or 2023, is to allow campaigns to use a mix of paper and online signatures. Staff have argued that it eliminates the time- and labor-saving benefits of online petitioning, which shift the burden of validation to users and away from staff.

“Certifying the signatures of the two other paper petitions and the subsequent referendum that were submitted (in 2021) took 400 staff hours over two, 10-day periods,” they wrote to council. “The City Clerk’s Office obtained staff support from the city attorney’s office (3 employees), IT department (2), and city manager’s office” (5, including city clerk staff) to complete certification of the three petitions.

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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