After twice voting down electronic petition-signing, the Boulder City Council is discussing it again. Your take?
When I think of ballot initiatives, a satirical “motivational” poster that I once saw comes to mind that said “Meetings: None of us are as dumb as all of us.” With ballot initiatives, sometimes none of us are dumb as all of us. Let’s remember that just 14 short years ago, Coloradans overwhelmingly approved, through ballot initiative, Amendment 43 defining marriage as between a man and a women.
The primary reason that we elect government officials is because governing is difficult, and we need some people dedicated to the task but also accountable to the people. I personally don’t have time to pore over the pros and cons of complex issues like relaxing occupancy laws, setting up digital acceptance of ballot initiatives, or whether a sugary drink excise tax is the best way to disincentivize sugar consumption. The recognition is that proper governance requires study, review of the facts, balancing of social goods and harms within the context of societal values and deliberation. As a citizen, the best I can do is vote for the politician who best represents most of my values and, if elected, hope that she governs and votes within that value set.
As a shortcut to this previously described deliberative process, we have ballot initiatives — which bypass the entire process and takes issues directly to the people. Ballot initiatives allow special interest groups to get their issues in front of the people or thumb their noses at the duly elected majorities.Want to ban abortion, repeal reasonable gun laws or introduce wolves onto the Western Slope? A ballot initiative is your best bet in Colorado.
This isn’t to say that I am totally against ballot initiatives, but I am skeptical. I just believe the deliberative process often yields better results. Because ballot initiatives allow these special interest groups to circumvent the normal deliberative process, I believe in the argument that making them difficult to place on the ballot weeds out less-important issues.
So, should the council waste more time on digital petition-signing or move to place the initiatives directly on the ballot? Absolutely not! None of these issues (whether I support them or not) are worth more of the council’s time during this pandemic. The council’s sole focus right now should be protecting the safety of our citizens, helping them pay their bills, and getting our services and businesses up and running again. If these special interest groups want to get their initiative on the ballot, here is what I recommend they do: 1. don a mask and gloves, 2. get some alcohol wipes, a pen and hand sanitizer, and 3. set up in front of any major city trail and start collecting signatures from 6 feet apart.
Doug Hamilton, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ballot issues came about because of dissatisfaction with our elected representatives. It’s a form of pure democracy riding atop our republic. Ideally, we wouldn’t need such initiatives at all and trust in our leaders or vote them out of office, but the reality is that they are used in half the states in the U.S., including Colorado.
Just like with the opening of the economy, there are two sides to this coin. But while our society could not survive a year-long shutdown, the current ballot issues are not urgent. All could easily survive a year-long slippage.
The first initiative consists of loosening residential occupancy restrictions. With the economic chaos ahead, this initiative seems eminently reasonable and could be necessary. Perhaps this will happen organically and the city can be somewhat relaxed in enforcement. This could serve as an unofficial test of the consequences, intended and otherwise, and guide the official process a year from now.
The second issue involves restricting general funds from the municipal electric utility boondoggle. With the city’s budget woes, this ill-begotten, wasteful journey looks to be coming to a merciful end. Proponents can save face by claiming it put the city into a better negotiating position with Xcel Energy, and we can move on to a brighter, greener future.
The last issue is the most ridiculous: to provide an eviction lawyer to every tenant who fails to pay rent. This overreach just increases already sky-high rents, because landlords will pass this fee along to tenants, no matter who is directly charged. If this is reasonable, why not appoint a public attorney for every civil case?
Rushing an electronic signature-gathering system into place would increase the risks that it won’t be done properly. This could put off the eventual implementation of such a system. Yes, Polis has issued a health order that allows for electronic signatures, but it is possibly unconstitutional, and a case is pending against that order. In-person-signature collecting is possible, albeit harder, and if it fails, it’s better to wait a year than to rush in a precedent that could be with us for a long time. In this case, caution seems to be most prudent.
Bill Wright, email@example.com
City Council’s refusal to act on this issue has been one of the most disappointing failures of leadership I’ve ever witnessed. These are extraordinary circumstances, and compromise will be necessary for democracy to prevail. Council should establish a formal electronic petitioning system or devise a fair standard by which they place petitioners’ measures on the ballot themselves, which could be informed by a less-formal electronic petition or other online indicators of widespread community support. If they refuse to do anything, they’re responsible for impeding the safe exercise of direct democracy in Boulder during a high-turnout presidential election year.
The merits of the petitions should be irrelevant to council’s decision on how to proceed. Placing these measures on the ballot under these circumstances does not constitute an endorsement. The whole purpose of citizen-led initiatives is to put the matter directly to voters rather than filter it through council. The only thing they should consider is the likelihood that the petitioners would have been able to gather the required number of signatures, had the pandemic not occurred.
Criteria could include the number of signatures gathered to date and the duration and extent of petitioners’ organizing efforts. For instance, the No Eviction Without Representation group has had an active social media presence since December 2019. With these criteria, it should be easy to distinguish between well-organized groups whose efforts are being thwarted by COVID-19 and hop-ons seeking to take advantage of the adapted procedures when they had not demonstrated any intent to petition prior to the pandemic. We will need to watch out for hop-ons.
Bob Yates tried to argue that opponents of the initiatives wouldn’t have time to organize themselves to persuade council not to put the initiatives on the ballot, but that is irrelevant. Petitioners are under no obligation to demonstrate that they have more support than the opposition. That will be determined by the vote in November.
Jane Hummer, firstname.lastname@example.org