Testing the system

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


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.

“You have to have a certain level of understanding and familiarity with online digital systems to make it through this process,” Castellano says. “It’s exclusionary and it makes it really difficult for people who don’t have familiarity with digital systems to sign and really to participate in the democratic process. The onus is on us because we are committed to supporting these individuals and to getting them through these steps. Just the other night Eric was on a 10-15-minute phone call helping someone get through the process, just doing customer service-related work. That’s our commitment to helping people through but it would’ve been obviously a lot better if we had a system where that wasn’t necessary.”

Both organizers say the City has been responsive to fixing acute issues. City Communication Manager Shannon Aulabaugh, in a statement to BW, says, “This is a new system so issues post-launch were expected. We have worked through all glitches with the system. The biggest issue was people not getting confirmation codes and that has been resolved.”

The resolution requires voters who have unlisted numbers on their registrations — Budd estimates 20-30% of voters — contact the County to go through the process of listing the number. That’s a lot to ask of someone who likes the idea of the BAFP Act and might sign the petition outside of a grocery store, but wouldn’t go through the trouble of making multiple phone calls, updating their voter registration and finding the petition again — and that’s even if they think about it twice.

That’s a fundamental design flaw, Budd says, and one the City needs to address for subsequent efforts.

“I think the system, from a technical perspective, is pretty solid, from everything that I can see. Some of the challenges are just design problems that I fundamentally believe can be fixed if the City prioritized fixing them,” Budd says. “The place where the City is not doing enough is for the kind of fundamental issues with the system. This issue with the unlisted phone numbers; that was a design issue with this website. I think it’s going to take them years to address this issue even though it disenfranchises tens of thousands of people.” 

Ultimately, BAFP organizers chose to go the online route and so they knew they’d have to work through some of the early kinks, but given that we’re still in a pandemic, and given their experience collecting signatures last year (only to find out Carr had given them the wrong deadline, thus nullifying their efforts), it made more sense to deal with potential issues and go online.

“We’re looking at the long game here,” Budd says. “The reality is physical signatures, what it leaves you with is very little after the fact. What we’re trying to do here is build a movement, and we’re doing that by really investing our resources in digital organizing, and being able to bring people along in the process and keep them in the loop. I think the benefits there, assuming we can get over this hurdle, far outweigh the costs we are incurring.”

Castellano hopes the hiccups in the rollout of BDDO don’t distract from the message of their petition efforts — that people have a chance to assess the BAFP Act and, if they decide to sign, can do so easily. 

“We know there’s a lot of support out there. We don’t want the difficulties of getting through the process to deter people. We’ve made it easy to get through this. People won’t get lost, we will follow up until we get every person through,” Castellano says. “What you get from singing a petition could be a future of Boulder that maybe is a little less exclusionary and provides more access to people. We think it’s a good bang for your buck.”  

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