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Problems plague early tests of Boulder’s online petition system

By Shay Castle. Originally published in the Boulder Beat on January 30, 2021.


"The launch of Boulder’s new online petitioning system has been marked with frustrations from would-be users, unable to sign a sample petition and discouraged by the multi-step process involving (at times) three levels of government. Local officials responded quickly, claiming all identified issues have been or will be addressed. A citizen group, hoping to use the nascent technology, says the shaky rollout has given them pause about being the first real-world test case.


Boulder Direct Democracy Online has been highly anticipated since voters OK’d allowing electronic signature gathering in November 2018. The city tapped Arizona-based Runbeck Election Services in December 2019 to develop a proprietary system.


The portal uses two-factor authentication to verify that users are registered to vote in the city of Boulder, via a phone number attached to state voter registration records. Boulder County—in charge of elections and associated data—shares an updated list of registered voters with the city every day. Once logged in, users can peruse active petitions, see how many other people (and who) have signed, and choose to add their own name.


A digital option would have come in handy last year, when five separate groups attempted to place measures on the ballot. After a mid-year rule change, only one succeeded, though three groups gathered enough signatures under original guidelines issued by the city. Another earned ballot access via council approval, but Bedrooms Are For People—which gathered more verified signatures than any other campaign—was left off.


Bedrooms, which hopes to amend Boulder’s rules on unrelated adults living together, isn’t sure the current system is an improvement over ink-and-paper petitioning. Of 40 volunteers recruited to test BDDO, only 19 were successful, leaders said.


'It’s disappointing the online system isn’t as ready to go live as one would hope,' said Chelsea Castellano, one of Bedrooms’ organizers. 'But we are working with the city to make sure they’re aware of the issues we have encountered. It seems they are actively working to try to address them.'


'City staff is doing a great job,' added co-organizer Eric Budd. 'They’re doing everything they can. These issues we’re finding is issues you would only find if you did a larger-scale set of testing.'


Boulderites (beyond Budd and Castellano) have raised the lack of broad testing in the past. The system will be essentially debuting with a live petition; larger numbers of users may result in the daylighting of more issues. Fixes may be found, but consequences for direct democracy will be real."


Read the full story on the Boulder Beat.

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