Primary election dates to move under Senate bill approved Wednesday

The Colorado Statesman

Colorado’s August primary could become a relic of history, under a bill that received unanimous approval Wednesday from the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

Senate Bill 11-189 would move Colorado’s primary election day from the second Tuesday in August to the last Tuesday in June. In 2012, that would mean a primary date of June 26.

The new primary date would make it easier for Colorado to comply with the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, a federal law designed to help absentee voters in the military or living abroad participate in elections.

Colorado’s August primary in 2010 made it difficult for the state to comply with one provision within the MOVE Act — a requirement that general election ballots go out to those covered under the MOVE Act 45 days prior to the election. In 2010, that meant ballots had to be ready to go by Sept. 18, an especially tight timeframe for county clerks in smaller counties, according to those who testified at a September hearing that included a review of possible calendar changes.

Then-Secretary of State Bernie Buescher sought a waiver from the Act from federal government, but that request was denied.

The bill is the brainchild of the Best Practices and Vision Commission within the Secretary of State’s office. The commission decided last September to ask the Secretary of State to propose legislation that would move the primary date, and the dates of dozens of other interlocking events, in order to comply with MOVE.

A June 26 primary date would put Colorado on the same primary day as Utah and in the same month as four other Western states: California, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico.

Because of the earlier primary, and according to SB 189, precinct caucuses would have to move up by at least two weeks, to the first Tuesday in March; county assemblies would have be held no later than 20 days after the caucuses; and timelines for petitions, nominations, and recounts also would change.

SB 189 sponsor Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, was a member of the Best Practices Commission and told the State Affairs Committee Wednesday that moving the primary date “won’t be without pain” and will cause complications.

Spokesman Rich Coolidge from the Secretary of State’s office said that prior to MOVE, ballots were mailed out 32 days ahead of the election, and moving it to 45 days added concerns for county clerks. The bill, and moving the primary date, would buy the county clerks additional time to comply with the MOVE Act, he said.

To address some of the concerns regarding tight timelines between precinct caucuses and assemblies, the bill was amended to allow 25 days instead of 20 days between those events. The amendment also extended the amount of time candidates have to collect petition signatures.

SB 189 was supported by all of the witnesses who testified Wednesday, including Best Practices Commission members Martha Tierney, an attorney who represents the Colorado Democratic Party; Ryan Call, the new chair of the Colorado Republican Party; and county clerks from Denver and Douglas counties. A representative from the League of Women Voters also voiced that organization’s support

During the Sept. 8 hearing, Call, then the attorney for the Colorado Republican Party, noted that the new primary date would make the timelines for holding caucuses and assemblies extremely tight. Under the proposed calendar and with the required statutory changes, there would be only about a month between the precinct caucuses and the state assemblies. In between those two events, the parties would have to squeeze in their congressional district and county assemblies, which might be a logistical issue, according to Call. He reiterated those concerns on Wednesday, noting that rules for both national parties prohibit caucuses from being held prior to March 1, but that he supported SB 189 with its amendment.

In the House, the bill is sponsored by Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, a former county clerk and member of the Best Practices Commission.

Jefferson County Clerk Pam Anderson noted during the Sept. 8 meeting that the MOVE Act eventually will change its requirement of 45 days to 60 days, and when that happens, the state will once again have to move primary and other dates. “This is not the last time we’ll be looking at this,” she said.

Some states, such as Illinois, have already adjusted their election calendars to comply with the 60-day goal. Coolidge told The Colorado Statesman Thursday that “we’d have a better opportunity” of meeting that requirement under SB 189.

The only opposition to the new primary date came in September from then-El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink, who said the new dates were “totally unnecessary. We easily complied with the MOVE Act requirements for the August 10th primary and we are doing the same for the general election. It’s a ‘can-do’ versus a ‘cannot’ attitude that makes it easy,” Balink told The Statesman. Neither Balink, who is now El Paso County Treasurer, nor his successor, Wayne Williams, were at Wednesday’s hearing. Williams told The Statesman he supports the bill. “It will make the process of complying with the federal law easier,” he said Thursday.

SB 189 passed 3-0, with two members absent (one Democrat and one Republican), and now goes to the Senate floor for further action.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com