Proponents of ballot measures up for the challenge

The Colorado Statesman

Call it shooting for the moon, or call it democracy from the ground up, the task of successfully getting an initiative onto the Colorado ballot is no small feat.

The Colorado title board approved all nine ballot measures proposed during a hearing earlier this month, raising the total of initiatives cleared for signature gathering to 14.

While some of the initiatives are backed by the financial and organizational support of advocacy groups like Focus on the Family and the Cannabis Alliance for Regulation and Education, ordinary citizens have proposed the majority of them.

Samuel Babcock of Colorado Springs, who proposed four ballot measures to the title board with his sister Elise Van Grinsven, said the idea came to him when he was researching ways to affect government online.

“I thought about the errant possibility of running for office, and decided instead on the errant possibility of trying to get initiatives passed,” Babcock said with a laugh.

The brother and sister duo — who say they are not affiliated with any political party — successfully proposed initiatives on eliminating property taxes, allowing the concealed carry of handguns without a permit, reshaping how state political primaries are conducted, and altering state senatorial districts based on county boundaries.

Babcock and Van Grinsven’s primary proposal would create an “open general primary” to determine the top two candidates for office, regardless of party affiliation. This would allow for the candidates selected for the general election ballot to be from the same party, or for that matter, to be unaffiliated with any party.

The proposal to re-shape senatorial districts would maintain the current total of 35 district seats by making the seven most populous counties their own senate districts, and then assigning neighboring pairs of counties to the remaining seats.

Babcock acknowledged that favoring geographically based districts over population-based districts would go against prior Supreme Court rulings, but he called those rulings hypocritical and said he would like to see the Colorado initiative lead to a challenge in the Supreme Court.

Describing the initiative process as “prohibitive,” Babcock said he didn’t feel very confident that he would get even one of his petitions onto the ballot. Raising money to cover the costs of printing and petition circulating will be the biggest challenge, he said.

The title board also approved three proposals to re-shape the initiative process.

David Ottke of Aurora, a retired RTD bus driver, and Boulder resident John Slota, a recent CU graduate who works as a business analyst for Union Pacific Railroad, met through a Libertarian group.

Their proposals encourage petitioners to make statutory changes as opposed to amendments to the state constitution, which they feel is already too convoluted.

The proposals also seek to raise the requirement to overturn an initiative from a simple majority in the Legislature to a three-fourths majority, and to lower the threshold of required signatures needed to qualify a measure for the ballot.

Ottke said that while the proposals make it easier to get initiatives on the ballot, he does not think the process should be relaxed any further, otherwise voters would have to face a “long list of trivial questions.”

“It needs to be difficult, and it is,” Ottke said.

The title board also approved a proposal backed by Christian-values advocacy group Focus on the Family on the freedom of religious expression in public.

The initiative states “government may not burden a person’s or religious organization’s freedom of religion.”

Tom Minnery, senior vice president of government and public policy for Focus on the Family, said the proposal has been in the works since 2010. He pointed to three examples of what he described as the state government’s interference with religious expression in explaining why the initiative is needed.

One example Minnery used was the case of Colorado Christian University vs. Weaver, which was filed after CCU was denied funds for state grants and scholarships when the state determined it would have violated a statute prohibiting state funds from going to religious organizations.
The ruling was upheld by the Federal District Court against CCU in 2004, but was overturned five years later in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals as unconstitutional.

Focus on the Family believes that with a statute protecting religious freedom of expression on the books, CCU would have had the option of taking their case to the state court and would have wasted fewer resources in the process.

Minnery feels that the national conversation on religious liberty has been brought further into the mainstream in the past year and anticipated clearing the required signatures threshold.

“We’re determined to get through it this time,” he said.

Although the religious freedom proposal has not yet made the ballot, the controversial initiative already has a coalition opposing the measure, made up of the same organizations that were preparing to oppose the initiative in 2010.

The coalition, which refers to itself as Religious Freedom for All Coloradans, is comprised of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, gay rights advocacy group One Colorado, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Council of Jewish Women’s Colorado section, the mountain states chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Community Center of Colorado, the Colorado Springs-based Citizens Project, the pro-choice group NARAL, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Jeremy Shaver, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, spoke on behalf of the coalition. He said they are currently considering all their options in opposing the measure, including challenging the ballot’s title and appealing to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Kristy Milligan, executive director of the Citizens Project, described the wording of the initiative as “deliberately nebulous and deceptive.”

“The measure is worded in such a way that it would theoretically appeal to people, when in fact the implications of the measure would undermine religious liberty,” Milligan said.

Shaver fears that the measure would be used to allow religious organizations to accept taxpayer money while being exempt from anti-discrimination laws, a fear shared by Denise Maes, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Colorado Chapter.

Maes said that since the initiative doesn’t have any language to protect existing civil rights laws, it would allow people to exempt themselves from abiding by the laws based on their religious beliefs.

“For example, an employer could argue that this new initiative allows them to refuse to hire women, lesbians and gay men, or people of a different religion,” Maes said.

The title board also approved another cannabis-related petition to go along with the other two cannabis initiatives that have already been cleared, including Amendment 64 to regulate marijuana like alcohol, which is already on the ballot.

Rico Colibri, head of patient advocacy for the Colorado-based Cannabis Alliance for Regulation and Education, said his group was seeking an initiative to regulate cannabis in a manner similar to tobacco because of how some court rulings have been decided since Amendment 64 had its title cleared.

Colibri said current case law puts peoples’ jobs, homes, child custody, occupational licenses, and firearms at risk. He describes the initiative — which would eliminate all criminal marijuana laws currently on the books — as a “rebuttal” to those court rulings.

“It’s kind of hard to be a responsible adult user when you’re homeless,” Colibri said.

In 2008, Colorado had 14 initiatives on the ballot — the second most of any state in the country behind California.

Amendment 64 is the only initiative to have cleared the 2012 ballot so far.

Other initiatives approved earlier in the year include: one to legalize the possession of all amounts of cannabis; one that would define “personhood” as starting at conception; one that would establish September 21 as “Colorado Peace Day;” and one that would allow a non-citizen resident of Colorado to obtain a driver’s license.

Denver resident and author Roland Aranjo proposed the initiative calling for an annual “Colorado Peace Day,” but has since stopped collecting signatures.

Colorado state law requires that each form, containing 25 signatures each, be individually notarized before being submitted to the secretary of state’s office. This amounts to more than 3,000 notarized forms, which Aranjo says isn’t a big deal, “if you’re one of the paid signature gathering agencies out there.”

“If you’re trying to do it with volunteers,” Aranjo said, “That makes it almost impossible.”

Rosalinda Lozano of Rachel’s Vineyard Ministries is sponsoring the personhood initiative along with radio host and pastor Kevin Swanson.

Lozano and Swanson work as petitioners for the Denver-based Personhood USA, the pro-life organization that proposed similar measures that were defeated in 2008 and 2010 with more than 70 percent of Coloradans voting against the measure in both elections.

Lozano said that while personhood initiatives have failed in the past, the national conversation on abortion has been re-shaped, even at the level of presidential politics.

She pointed out that every Republican presidential candidate supported the initiative except for Mitt Romney.

“For that to happen, it’s big,” Lozano said. “If we are part of the conversation, we are doing something right. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is this time because the educational aspect is helping people to understand what is truly at stake.”

Lozano said that the signatures have not recently been counted, but that she will “absolutely” have the required amount of signatures for the initiative before the deadline.

Elena Nuñez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, said that Colorado has a strong initiative process, but it requires a “statewide grassroots presence” to qualify initiatives.

“There are several pieces that make it a challenge for proponents who don’t have a strong coalition of support,” Nuñez said. “You have to collect anywhere from 125,000 to 150,000 signatures to conduct a drive of that scale.”

Colorado Common Cause has spearheaded several initiatives to curb the influence of money in politics, many of them successful; the most recent example being Amendment 41 in 2006, which placed limits on the gifts that public officials in Colorado can receive.

Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute — a libertarian-leaning think-tank in Denver — said that the only people who think putting initiatives on the ballot is easy are those who have never attempted it.

Caldara pointed to a 2009 law, House Bill 1326, which added numerous hurdles to the initiative process and was decried by the non-profit advocacy group Citizens in Charge as “the worst legislative attack on petition rights in modern history.”

In 2010, Caldara challenged the constitutionality of the law in federal court, after which Federal District Judge Philip Brimmer issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the state of Colorado from enforcing several key provisions of the law.

Caldara said he spent over $100,000 in legal fees due to a provision in the law that makes the proponent of an initiative responsible for any fraudulent activity by a petition circulator.

“The legislature constantly wants to kill the initiative process because it brings forward limitations, checks and balances on the legislature,” Caldara said. “Everyone in power hates the initiative process.”

Caldara pointed out that the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, open meeting laws, and legislative term limits all came from initiatives on the ballot, and are for the most part less than popular with legislators.

Ben@coloradostatesman.com