The first year of Boulder Direct Democracy Online, the city’s new online petitioning system, was not without its challenges.
Still, Bedrooms Are For People, which seeks to change Boulder’s occupancy limits by allowing more unrelated people to live together, has tentatively made the ballot. Bedrooms — the sole campaign of three total that chose to use the city’s new system — has collected more than 3,500 signatures of the 3,336 it needs. Once submitted, the city has 10 days to validate the signatures.
While collecting signatures, however, many of the Bedrooms Are For People volunteers worked 40 hours a week — on top of their day jobs — helping people navigate the system and understand how to sign the petition. The team built a customer management system to help people through the process and spent 300 to 500 hours assisting potential signees.
“We essentially had to create our own technology company to use this system,” co-chair Eric Budd said.
“We stuck to our plan, but it just took a lot more work to execute the plan than we were realizing,” he added.
According to data collected by Bedrooms, 6,300 people tried to sign the petition, and there were 4,800 that the campaign deemed as valid submissions by matching information from the campaign’s website to the city’s voter database. More than 3,500 of those signatures had been verified through the city’s system as of Friday.
The final signing rate of valid Boulder voters was 73%, Budd said. That left about 1,200 who should have been able to sign but were unable to complete the process.
As the city launched Boulder Direct Democracy Online, it acknowledged there would be challenges in getting the first-of-its-kind system off the ground. In a May 25 Boulder City Council study session, City Attorney Tom Carr provided an update on some of those problems.
“As you can see, this system is not perfect. I wish it worked better. We don’t live in a perfect world, though,” Carr said.
The most common problems involve phone numbers, one being when a person did not include a phone number on their voter registration and another being when a person has an “unlisted” number on their voter registration. To remove an unlisted number, it required filling out a form and submitting it to Boulder County before a person could sign the petition.
In order to endorse a petition, a person must be eligible to vote in Boulder. The online system also requires an active phone number on a person’s voter registration because the security of the system relies on multifactor authentication. For those uncomfortable with adding their primary phone number to their voter registration, the city recommended setting up a Google Voice phone number or adding a number to their voter registration and removing it after endorsing the petition.
“We don’t have the data to really do good multifactor authentication other than a phone number,” he said. “The phone number has challenges that we didn’t even know about when we started this.”
The amount of labor required on the part of the campaign organizers was problematic for at least one Boulder City Council member.
“The good news is that the system is functional to the point that an initiative was actually able to be successful,” Councilmember Aaron Brockett said in the May 25 study session. “But I do know that they ended up spending dozens of hours of professional IT time building a system on top of the system in order to make it work.”
Brockett offered to work with the county to help solve the unlisted phone number problem.
After many expressed frustration about the requirement to select the new online system or the old paper method, the city implemented a city manager’s rule that allowed campaigns to circulate the petition online, with paper or both. However, only one method could be submitted.
Budd and co-chair Chelsea Castellano said it’s hard to say for certain whether they’d opt to use Boulder Direct Democracy Online again if they wanted to bring forth another ballot measure. Castellano maintains it would be best to be able to offer both the paper and the online option for people.
“Obviously allowing both in-person and digital signatures would have been the most equitable approach,” Castellano said. “It’s really not fair to ask voters to go through what some people really have to go through in order to support an initiative.”
A few councilmembers said they’d like to see that idea considered as well.
Overall, Mayor Sam Weaver said it’s impressive the city has been able to get the new system off the ground, particularly considering county and state systems weren’t pushing for the change.
“There are activists who are clamoring for it, and we are among those activists as a city,” he said. “But change does take time.”
At the end of the day, the petitioning system isn’t the problem Bedrooms is trying to solve.
“The mechanism by which we get this measure on the ballot is secondary to the importance of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Castellano said.
“The people who are being hurt and who are struggling in their current housing situation … That’s the problem that we’re trying to fix,” she added. “And that problem is, in my mind, more important than fixing the electronic petitioning system.”