This week the Boulder City Council hesitated to take resident-led democracy into its own hands amid the coronavirus pandemic by placing any of three municipal initiative petitions currently approved for circulation among local voters onto November’s ballot.
But on Tuesday it may give advocates behind the respective petitions seeking to change local laws the chance to certify their respective measures for the election through signatures provided electronically, since the outbreak has rendered standard petitioning unsafe and ineffective, with stay-at-home orders and limits on gathering in place.
Separate groups hope through one petition and ensuing majority vote this fall to force local government to provide legal counsel to tenants facing eviction proceedings, another wants to “end the muni” by redirecting a city tax away from its local utility project, and the third hopes to loosen Boulder’s occupancy limits prohibiting more than three unrelated people from dwelling together in many homes.
But the former two require collecting 3,336 signatures of registered Boulder voters by June 5 to find their ways onto the ballot, while the latter needs 4,048 signatures by Aug. 5.
The Council itself has the right through a vote of a majority of members to put items on the ballot itself, but it appears unlikely to do so on behalf of any of the petitioners who are bound to have far less opportunity than they normally would to generate support for the prospective measures because of the viral pandemic. There was discussion of potentially creating some criteria by which to call an effort that gained some support but not enough to qualify for heading to voters “good enough,” and the Council then acting to place that measure on the ballot under the assumption it may have qualified if not for the pandemic. But that idea failed to generate much enthusiasm among the elected leaders.
“I’m not going to be really thrilled about committing now in April to folks that if they get a certain number of signatures or get all the signatures by a certain date that we will definitely put it on the ballot,” Mayor Pro Tem Bob Yates said.
A proposed ordinance to be discussed Tuesday and potentially adopted by emergency, meaning it would go into effect immediately if the Council agrees, would allow for the use of voter signatures submitted electronically to count toward the requirements.
“Our group believes that online signature collection is the most viable way to demonstrate community support for our measure in November,” said resident Eric Budd, an organizer of the Bedrooms Are for People group pushing to relax residential occupancy limits. “We continue to engage with Council and the City Attorney’s Office to get a commitment from Council to provide a fair system for gathering signatures that both meets the city’s legal requirements and does not create an undue burden for the residents who would like to participate in the democratic process.”
But ensuring that online voter registration lists could not be accessed by petition leaders seeking to add the support of electors without their knowledge is crucial; city staff and an election software vendor are currently in the process of developing a voter-approved online petitioning system that includes two-step authentication to ensure a veracious process, but it will not be ready until next year’s election cycle, officials said.
Under consideration for Tuesday is a stopgap lifeline the city would toss to the petitioners whose efforts have been upended by the pandemic, if the Council approves.
“The proposed ordinance includes some safeguards against widespread fraud, including provisions to invalidate the entire measure if fraud is detected. It also preserves the right of registered electors to protest signatures on a petition to the extent possible,” a city staff memo to the Council stated.
The plan would allow signatures in support to be collected through various mediums. It would define electronic signature as “an electronic sound, symbol, or process attached to or logically associated with a record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record.”
It will not mandate the use of any specific means or program for gathering signatures.
“Petition circulators would not be required to submit the actual documents that were signed,” the memo stated. “Instead, the circulators would be required to submit to the city clerk an electronic spreadsheet using a template supplied by the clerk which would include: name, date signed, address, ZIP code, voter registration number, telephone number and email address. The city clerk will compare the list of signers to the county voter registration database and invalidate any signature that does not meet voter registration requirements.”
The clerk’s office would also be required to contact at least 150 randomly selected signers of each petition either by email or phone, and if 10% do not have a valid phone number or email address, do not respond to the clerk or are not the voter named on the petition, the entire petition will be invalidated, the memo said. Additionally, the names and addresses of the signers will be posted online, and if 10% contact the city to disavow the signature, the petition will also be tossed.
The municipal charter allows any registered voter to protest, and obtain a complete copy of a petition. A protester needs to disclose specific grounds for the objection.
“The proposed ordinance is far from a perfect solution,” the memo said. “The intent is to balance the community value of direct democracy against the need to protect our community in this emergency.”