Local Gov’t 101: Direct Democracy — Power to the People

By Emma Athena
For Boulder Beat

Other Gov’t 101 stories:
Who’s in Charge?
Civilian Roles
Public Participation
Who to call
Glossary

Petitions: A direct route to lawmaking

Colorado is one of 24 states — plus Washington D.C. — that allow citizens to initiate their own legislation. This means everyday people in Colorado have the power to write new laws, change existing laws and repeal laws at the state and local level. It’s an opportunity for citizens to enact their own legislative ideas when politicians or legislative officials neglect or decline to take action on an issue important to the community.

Initiating citizen legislation is done through the petitioning process. Depending on the type of legislation, citizens must draft a ballot measure, then collect a certain number of signatures endorsing the measure. If enough signatures are collected and verified, a citizen’s measure earns a spot on the ballot, where the entire community can vote on the proposal. A majority vote means elected officials must enact the proposed legislation.

Some quintessential Boulder policies were put in place via the citizen initiative process, including the open space-funding sales tax and the citywide height limit for buildings. 

City council can refer its own measures to the ballot without collecting signatures, so long as they have a majority vote amongst themselves, and can also work with citizen initiative campaigns to amend their original ballot language before submitting the final measure. The 2020 ballot contains two measures that originated as citizen initiatives — No Eviction Without Representation and Our Mayor, Our Choice — and were amended and placed on the ballot by city council.

State vs. City: Whose rules rule?

There are a few differences between the state and the city petitioning guidelines, primarily in the number of signatures required, but also how those signatures can be obtained and time given to collect them. 

At the state level, petition endorsements must happen in the presence of an official petition circulator. At the local level in Boulder, petitions can be endorsed remotely or in person. A new electronic endorsement system, Boulder Direct Democracy Online (BDDO), was ready for citizens to use for the 2021 election season. 

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

Boulder is the first city in the nation to allow citizens to petition electronically. BDDO will only be available to petitioners pursuing municipal initiatives, referendums, and recalls — not charter amendments. 

Boulder’s charter governs most aspects of petitioning. The exception is charter amendment petitions. Colorado and Boulder have conflicting requirements regarding how many signatures are required and how long circulators have to gather them.

City council in July 2020 decided that the state rules apply; the city is working on changes to its charter to reflect that. Voters will have to approve those in November 2021.

For information about state petitions and election procedures, visit leg.colorado.gov/content/how-file-initiatives

Direct Democracy: Power to the People

Initiatives 

Initiatives are measures that bring new legislation to the table. On the local level, citizens can change the city charter and/or what’s included in Boulder’s code. 

For either charter or municipal initiatives, the process can occur any year in Boulder. Citizen initiatives often require months of organization and help from volunteers to collect signatures. 

To begin the initiative process, citizens must file a Statement of Intent to circulate a petition and draft the measure’s legal language, both of which are submitted to the city clerk’s office for review and approval. The clerk checks the measure for any preliminary legal issues — the measure can’t conflict with existing laws, nor can it contain reference to multiple subjects. 

The clerk might offer advice on a measure’s wording or scope during this initial review; circulators can revise their measures as needed. Once approved, campaigns can start collecting signatures. 

There’s a time limit for signature collection on all initiatives. The deadlines depend on what type of initiative, as detailed below. 

Once signatures are submitted, the city clerk has 10 days to verify them. Signatures may be rejected for a variety of reasons: A person’s address may not match their voter registration file, the person isn’t a resident of Boulder, or the initiative campaign may have filled out a petition sheet improperly.

If too many signatures were deemed invalid, then citizens get 10 more days to gather any additional signatures needed to meet the threshold. After this “cure” period, the petition is submitted again, and the signatures re-analyzed. 

If the number of signatures meets or exceeds the threshold, the clerk then certifies the petition and has until 60 days before the election to submit the measure to Boulder County, the entity that conducts the city’s election and manages its ballots. Then, registered voters in the city of Boulder weigh the proposal.

Charter amendment initiatives*

Signature threshold: In even-numbered years, the number of signatures must equal at least 10% of the number of registered electors on the day of the Statement of Intent is filed with the City Clerk. In odd-numbered years, it’s 5% of the same average. 

In 2021, charter amendment petitions will need 3,000-4,000 signatures to qualify for ballot placement. The clerk’s office plans to announce official guidelines with exact signature thresholds at the end of January 2021.

Deadline: Signatures are due 90 days after receiving permission to petition. If the 90th day falls on a weekend or holiday, the petition is due the last business day before the weekend or holiday.

*This information is based on council’s July 2020 interpretation of conflicting state and local guidelines. Official adoption is subject to approval by Boulder voters.

Municipal initiatives

Signature threshold: 10% of the average number of registered electors who voted in Boulder’s previous two council candidate elections. As council members are only elected every two years, the city clerk updates the signature number needed for non-charter initiatives every two years.

Deadline: 150 days prior to the election. In 2021, that means Friday, June 4. If the 150th day falls on a weekend or holiday, the petition is due the last business day before the weekend or holiday.

Referendums 

A referendum is a chance for voters to reject a legislative measure newly passed by city council or the state legislature. People can petition for the opportunity to put the law to a vote, where the community as a whole can decide to keep or discard it. Representatives can also ask citizens to vote on particular topics.  

To enact a referendum, citizens have 30 days after the final passage of the measure in question to file an intent to petition and gather all of the necessary signatures. Like initiatives, signature verification and a cure process then takes place before the petition is finalized for certification. 

If a petition is certified, then city council has two options: either reconsider the measure in the way the petition specifies (void it or amend it), or council can put the original measure on the ballot in the next election and have the community at large weigh the measure.  

Signature threshold: 10% of the average number of registered electors who voted in the city’s previous two council elections

Deadline: 30 days after the measure in question passed

Recall 

A recall is a petition and vote for removing a politician from office. It’s an avenue of democracy seldom used in Boulder, though a handful of state senators and numerous elected officials in other municipalities have been removed through this process. 

One of the most famous recalls in Boulder history happened in 1974, when then-mayor Penfield Tate II helped city council pass an amendment that banned discriminiation based on sexual orientation. Constituents responded to this amendment in relative uproar, voted to repeal it, and then petitioned to recall Penfield and the five council members who had voted in favor of it.

While Penfield narrowly escaped the recall, one council member — Tim Fuller, who only later came out as gay — was ultimately recalled and replaced on council. 

To start a recall petition, citizens must file a statement of intent and write a general statement that explains why the recall is being sought. The official that the recall petition addresses must publicly post the petition and make it available to members of the public. Officials with less than six months in office cannot be recalled.

Like in the case of initiatives and referendums, a recall petition also goes through the signature verification and cure period. If a petition is certified, then the recall is put to a vote.

Council is in charge of scheduling the vote, and it must be done on a Tuesday between 75 and 90 days after receiving notice of the recall. If an election is already scheduled anywhere within the 90-day window, city council may choose to add the recall measure to the upcoming ballot. 

Signature threshold: 20% of the average number of registered electors who voted in the city’s previous two council elections

Deadline: 30 days after the clerk approves the petition

Emma Athena is a reporter based in Boulder, Colorado. She investigates the intersection of people, the places they inhabit, and public policies. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s climbing or running across the mountains. See more of her work at emmaathena.com 

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