Sweeping bill for election reform passes

The Colorado Statesman

One of the most partisan bills facing the legislature did not disappoint this week as the House on Friday backed the controversial sweeping elections reform measure. The lower chamber’s vote came after more than 80 citizens packed a legislative committee room on Monday during a cold spring snowstorm to voice their opinions on the polarizing proposal.

House Bill 1303 has pitted Republicans against Democrats, the secretary of state against his county clerks and voters against voters. Even some clerks have split from their association to oppose the measure.

With only about three weeks left in the legislative session, the ambitious bill, sponsored by Assistant Majority Leader Dan Pabon, D-Denver, and Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, would bring the most comprehensive elections reform to the state in recent memory.

It passed the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on a Democratic party-line vote of 7-4. The measure passed Appropriations on Wednesday, and then made it through the House on a party-line vote of 36-26, with three lawmakers excused.

The legislation could serve as a model for other states, and perhaps the nation, as both parties struggle with balancing expanding voter rolls and integrity.

The issue has become politicized — Democrats have accused Republicans of opposing reform in an effort to restrict new voters, who primarily lean left; and Republicans have alleged that Democrats are oblivious to the threats of voter fraud.

The 126-page measure would:

• Shorten the time required for state residency in order to register to vote;

• Expand the voter registration deadline through Election Day;

• Require clerks to mail ballots to all voters, even if they have not elected all-mail;

• Mandate that clerks establish a minimum number of voter service and polling centers;

• Repeal the category of inactive-failed-to-vote, thereby prohibiting clerks and the secretary’s office from refusing to mail ballots to inactive voters;

• Authorize clerks to electronically transmit elections-related communications; and

• Require the secretary of state to conduct monthly change of address searches on all electors, and mandate that clerks update those voters’ records.

“This is exceptional legislation that will bring our elections into the 21st Century,” Pabon explained. “This bill is the culmination of years of work by various stakeholders involved in civic engagement and administering elections. This is a Colorado solution.”

“People have demanded that we reform our elections system, and it is time for us to design an elections system around our voters and making it accessible and as easy for them to exercise their very precious right to vote in this country,” added Hullinghorst.

By the time the measure made it to the House floor on second reading on Thursday afternoon, the political atmosphere surrounding the bill had already been charged, with lawmakers from both parties readying for a fight.

Legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle huddled around the press table on the House floor making respective arguments around many issues surrounding the bill.

Drafted in secrecy?

Above all, Republicans are outraged over a perceived notion that the legislation was crafted in secret. They say sponsors did not bring Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler into discussions, nor did they ask any Republican legislators to be a part of the conversation.

“I asked to be a part of this piece of legislation from the very beginning … I got the bill for the very first time last week — after it was drafted, mere hours before the bill was introduced …” House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, said from the floor on Thursday. “We were completely, totally and utterly iced out of the process. And that does not make better election law for the people of the state of Colorado.”

Gessler agrees. During the committee hearing on Monday, he suggested, “Frankly, the people who wrote it … wrote it in secret, they froze out any voice that disagreed with them, they didn’t listen to my office’s expertise, they didn’t listen to public concerns that may have disagreed with their views — frankly, they didn’t listen to many counties.”

Colorado GOP Chairman Ryan Call has also entered the debate, suggesting, “If Democrats truly believed that this bill was about fair elections rather than partisan advantage, they would have followed precedent and worked across the aisle.

“Instead, they brought union bosses, party lawyers and liberal activists to the table,” he continued. “It should raise flags for everyone when Democrat operatives … were invited to draft an elections bill, but the secretary of state, Republican legislators and other experts were kept in the dark until the last minute,” continued Call. “The people of Colorado deserve better, especially when the integrity of our elections are at stake.”

The stakeholders who were part of the bill drafting included many left-leaning groups. The entire coalition included Colorado Common Cause, Vet Voice Foundation, 9to5 Colorado, Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, New Era Colorado and Mi Familia Vota.

Pabon reminded his colleagues that he was prepared to present the bill at a Department of State Best Practices and Vision Commission meeting. He said the secretary’s office disinvited him after speaking with The Colorado Statesman on April 3.

“I believe this process has been incredibly thoughtful, that we had offered to present the bill and we were rebuffed,” exclaimed Pabon. “We shared the draft of the bill the same day that the bill was shared with the county clerks, and shared with the minority leader. There’s nothing secret about this process, and nothing secret about what took place here.”

Republicans also raised several issues on the policy itself, including the speed at which the measure would be implemented — about six months — voter fraud and broadband support services in rural parts of the state, which would be key to the electronic portions of the measure.

The GOP moved two unsuccessful amendments around the fraud issue, including proposals to require photo ID in order to vote. They argue that because the bill would allow same-day registration, a photo ID is necessary to offer safeguards.

Colorado law only requires a valid address in order to register to vote. To cast a ballot at a polling center, voters are required to show proof of residence, which can be verified with a utility bill. Republicans are worried that people registering and voting on Election Day could lead to fraud because the state does not have many safeguards.

“We do need to make voting for people easy and accessible because it’s our constitutional right. But we also owe it to the cities of this state to know that the system that they are using to cast their constitutional right is full proof, and we need to assure them that that vote, that precious constitutional right that they are given as a citizen of this country, counts,” said Assistant Minority Leader Libby Szabo, R-Arvada.

Gessler outraged

Gessler — an outspoken conservative who has been nicknamed the Honey Badger for his fearless approach to partisanship, despite the nonpartisan nature of his post — has been outraged since first learning of the measure.

As first reported by The Statesman on April 5, Gessler nearly threw a fit when advised of the details of the soon-to-be-drafted bill, calling the measure “piss-poor thinking on the other side,” and referring to his opponents as “crazy.”

He walked into the hearing on Monday offended to learn that the County Clerks Association would likely be supporting the measure. The association confirmed their support during the committee hearing. Its support could come across as an insult to Gessler, who is the state’s chief elections official.

“This is a flawed bill, and this is an example of bad government,” the secretary said during testimony.
As he finished his remarks, a thunderous applause erupted in the committee room. It wasn’t the only time there was an outburst. Rep. Tim Dore, R-Elizabeth, caused an explosion of cheer when he questioned the motives behind the bill, commenting, “I’m trying to get my arms around why we’re doing this.”

That was the intent behind Gessler’s remarks as well, suggesting that the measure is unnecessary and would cost individual counties as much as $1 million to implement. Supporters, however, believe the measure would significantly lower costs over time, pointing to a fiscal analysis indicating there would be savings of $9.5 million annually for local governments.

Still, Gessler feels he is being left out of the process, when he says all he really wants to do is find a way for everyone to get along: “I’ve been willing to sit down to create better election in this state,” he advised the committee.

As evidence, he points to his work with Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson, from the Democratic city of Denver. Gessler worked with Johnson on inactive voter legislation after Denver and Pueblo counties won initial lawsuits against Gessler that allowed them to mail ballots to inactive voters.

The secretary later agreed to work with Johnson on a bill addressing the issue. He’s stunned that instead of that bill running separately, it has become a part of the elections reform conversation.

“We started those conversations well before the court decisions,” attested Gessler. “That’s what should happen.”

He reminded the committee that he embarked on a listening tour across the state to gain feedback on the state’s elections system. Gessler said he never once heard cries for expansion of early voting, same-day registration, or all-mail elections.

“There’s a lot of other voices who need to be heard here,” continued Gessler. “There’s a lot of people behind me … perhaps members of the committee will learn things …”

Clerks divided

El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams stands with Gessler and Republicans. He said he left the clerks association last year because it was backing the bill.

The clerks association — with 75 percent of its members supporting the bill — alluded to their support in a letter to lawmakers last November in which it recommended several of the proposals outlined in the bill.

Williams has released a YouTube video that draws attention to flaws he sees in the measure: “The more the people of the State of Colorado and El Paso County learn about this terrible piece of legislation, the more they don’t like it,” he said.

“This bill increases the likelihood of dirty elections,” Williams continued. “The practices currently in place that detect fraud would not be able to be applied with same-day voter registration.

“I am wholly committed to the conduct of fair and clean elections,” he added. “The more we learn about this bill, the more concerned we become it will undermine our strong and successful system.”

Several citizen voter activists are also speaking out against the bill, including the Aspen-based Citizen Center, which has found itself at odds with Gessler’s office in the past, but aligned in opposition over HB 1303.

“The concepts underlying the Election Modernization Act are an anathema to a modern democratic society and are an attempt to pull Colorado back to the pre-1890s voting methods that required decades of massive reform to curtail widespread corruption in American elections,” stated Marilyn Marks, executive director of Citizen Center.

Marks and her group have been the leading advocates in the state for anonymous, yet transparent elections. She believes the voter modernization reforms proposed could lead to demise in ballot secrecy and a rigging of the system.

“1303 would wrest control of our elections from the hands of the people and allow ill-intentioned individuals and the government all the power to control the ballot box,” Marks continued. “Under 1303, Colorado voters would have to accept that the election system is an ‘honor system’ under the dictates of a handful of government officials. An ‘honor system’ in elections is folly, and should not be suddenly foisted on the unsuspecting public.”

But with the majority of clerks in support of the effort, opponents face an uphill battle. Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder Pam Anderson spoke on behalf of the County Clerks Association, stating its unequivocal support for the measure.

“The members of our association elect independently elected clerks and one appointed clerk. We recognize that the best policy is likely a compromise of ideas …” said Anderson.

“We are elected county clerks represented by both parties …” she continued. “What we look at from the big picture is will it work … As a whole, over three-quarters of our county membership supports this legislation as important and timely policy that looks to the future …”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com