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Testing the System

Community organizers are navigating residents through technical glitches and design flaws while gathering signatures online for a ballot initiative


By Matt Cortina. Originally published in the Boulder Weekly on March 11, 2021.


Whether they like it or not, and whether it’s fair or not, organizers of the Bedrooms Are For People (BAFP) campaign are the guinea pigs for Boulder’s new electronic system to collect signatures for ballot initiatives, Boulder Direct Democracy Online (BDDO).


So far, the process has had some technical and procedural glitches. Some problems the City has been quick to fix, other issues are baked into the design and rollout of the technology, organizers say.


But in order to get the required 3,336 signatures to put the BAFP Act (which would increase housing occupancy limits to the number of bedrooms plus one) on the ballot this November, campaign organizers have had to take on the role of educating Boulder residents how to navigate the system.


“If we had just sent people to the City website, about 80% of the people who tried to sign immediately would fail,” says BAFP co-organizer Eric Budd.


Some of the issues Budd and BAFP co-organizer Chelsea Castellano have identified include people wanting to sign the signature but having an unlisted phone number in their voter registration (necessary for authentication), the site being down while voter lists are updated, and people using a nickname, incorrect name or name unrecognized by the system (if, say, a person has two last names or a hyphenated name or a nickname).


One must input their Voter ID, and the Boulder system directs people to find that on the Secretary of State’s website; most people will find it, some won’t, or won’t immediately, and, thus, won’t go through with signing the petition. It’s an important step that validates a voter’s identity, but the truth is it’s an extra step that’s moved from the back-end of the petitioning process (when signatures are verified) to the front-end, now in the hands of organizers.


All these little obstacles matter because the more time and effort added to the signature-gathering process, the fewer people follow through to sign the petition.


“To get a physical signature, it’s about 30-60 seconds,” Budd says. “Online, if there are any roadblocks and we have to fix issues, it becomes very unwieldy for a majority of folks.”

That leaves it up to BAFP to help residents navigate through the process.


“We have a lot of people who have started to sign but we’re still following through to get them to finish because of the fact that they need to take additional steps and be reminded to finish,” Castellano says.


Of course, none of this would be an issue if City Council allowed petition-gatherers to use both online and paper signatures in their efforts. But Council voted against that, with City Attorney Tom Carr saying it would cost too much money, require too many staff resources and raise security issues if both were allowed.


Budd and Castellano also assert, generally, that BDDO’s design is not easily navigable for those who aren’t comfortable with digital services. Allowing in-person and online signatures would’ve brought more people to the literal and virtual table to consider signing the petition."


Read the full story in the Boulder Weekly.

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