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Petitioners opt for old-school paper and pen over Boulder’s online system

By Shay Castle. Originally published in the Boulder Beat on April 23, 2021.


"Bedrooms Are For People remains the sole group testing the waters of Direct Democracy Online, developed for the city by Runbeck Election Services for $490,000. The campaign debuted after less than a month of public testing, and it hasn’t been a smooth process.


'Some people can finish this process in two minutes or less,' said Eric Budd, a Bedrooms organizer. 'For some people, it’s days, weeks. We have an internal list of 1,000 people we have verified are registered voters, that can sign and haven’t been able to get through the process.'


'Parts of this are successful. But if you drop this system anywhere else and expect it to be successful, you’re kidding yourselves.'


The campaign is actually employing a hybrid model, sending volunteers to storefronts and parks with the traditional clipboard. Instead of collecting signatures, though, workers are walking signers through the multi-step process. There’s also a tremendous amount of followup for those who aren’t able to sign on the spot.


'If they don’t finish signing right away, that’s where we have volunteers follow up with them by phone call text or email and walk them through the process step-by-step,' said Chelsea Castellano, another organizer. 'If someone updates their phone number in person, we mark that. A few days later, we send them a text, we give them a link to sign and help them through the process.'


'That’s a massive undertaking on our part,' said Budd. 'Last year was more stressful' — with the pandemic, changing city guidelines and eventual lawsuit — 'but we’re doing more work this year.'


Some early problems were identified by the campaign itself, such as the difficulty of changing unlisted phone numbers. City staff has been very helpful, fixing every bug brought to their attention, Budd and Castellano said, but the remaining problems are deep design flaws, not technical issues.


'Technically, it works fine,' said Budd. 'It’s the user interface, the product experience. I work in software development. If (a private-sector company) were designing something like this, their job would be to understand the end user. That’s an aspect of this software that was just not done. There was no extensive user outreach or testing.'


'The city will do extensive outreach on housing developments,' he added. 'They literally dropped this on us and had us do the testing for them.'


Budd and Castellano are hopeful the kinks will be worked out, and the system will catch on with residents with repeated use.


One of the biggest fixes for campaigns would be allowing a mix of online and in-person signatures. Petitioners can collect both but submit only one set — meaning they have to gather enough signatures through each venue to meet the legal minimum.


Council in December directed staff to explore changes to the system so it could accommodate both. It may require a redesign, Carr advised, with all the attendant costs and complexities. Any hybrid option wouldn’t be available until 2022 or after."


Read the full story on the Boulder Beat.

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