A late-night battle over Colorado’s unaffiliated voters

Sens. Kevin Lundberg, a Larimer County Republican, and Steve Fenberg, a Boulder County Democrat, and two county clerks, Matt Crane of Arapahoe and Debra Johnson of Denver, listen to questions from a Senate committee late Tuesday on an elections bill.

A state Senate committee late Tuesday passed a measure aimed at implementing two ballot measures that impact unaffiliated voters participating in primary elections.

Sen. Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, testified it is “always a little precarious” to “tinker” with measures voters approve.

“In this case, I don’t think the legislature has a choice,” he said. “Some things need to be fixed, some things need to be implemented, we need to pay for it and the secretary of state’s office needs direction on how to implement this new law.”

Fenberg and Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, are co-sponsoring Senate Bill 305, which the Senate State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee approved on a 4-1 vote shortly before midnight — the last of 16 bills the committee began hearing at 1:30 that afternoon.

“Is Senate Bill 305 an attempt to implement what we believe the voters said they wanted, or it is an attempt to correct some perceived errors in the content of 107 and 108 so they will work more smoothly?” Sen. Lois Court, D-Denver, asked during the hearing.

Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert testifies in favor of Senate Bill 305, an elections measure.

“I think it probably does a little bit of both,” Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert responded.

Proposition 107 requires the state to hold presidential primaries, and allows unaffiliated voters to participate without affiliating with a major party. The next presidential primary is in 2020.

Proposition 108 allows unaffiliated voters to participate in primary elections held every two years in June, again without affiliating. That measure is the most pressing one because it impacts the 2018 primary, when voters will pick candidates for the statewide constitutional offices, including governor and treasurer.

A key sticking point on how to implement the measure is whether the public has the right to find out whether an unaffiliated voter chose to mark a Democrat or Republican primary ballot. The disagreement has been spelled out in recent stories by The Colorado Independent’s Corey Hutchins and The Denver Post’s Brian Eason.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s office supports the disclosure of that information.

“The fact that you voted, the ballot style that you vote, has always been recorded in the state-wide voter registration system and has been a matter of public record,” Staiert said.

But others fear such disclosure would deter participation from unaffiliated voters, when the goals of the two ballot measures was to make it easier for unaffiliated voters to access the ballot.

Curtis Hubbard with OnSightPublic Affairs delivers petition signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office in 2016 for two ballot measures dealing with unaffiliated voters. (SOS photo)

Since their passage, the implementation of Propositions 107 and 108 has been a key issue for Secretary of State Wayne Williams. He discussed
the measures when he met this year with county clerks at their various regional training conferences, including ones in Cañon City, Sterling and Rifle.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, was the lone “no” vote against the bill, which likely will be heard Friday by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Court said she initially opposed the measure, until hearing Staiert’s testimony.

Hill complained the bill was being rushed through late at night and late in the session — which by law must end Wednesday — and he wanted more time to study the issue. Denver County Clerk Debra Johnson echoed that concern during her testimony, as did her elections director, Amber McReynolds.

“We have been talking about this for months,” Staiert countered.

Sens. Kevin Lundberg, a Larimer County Republican, and Steve Fenberg, a Boulder County Democrat, present their bill late Tuesday on implementing ballot measures that change voting requirements for unaffiliated voters.

Previously, unaffiliated voters could participate in a primary by declaring to be either a Republican or a Democrat. Now they will automatically receive a ballot, but the question is, what kind?

Some election activists want a “super ballot” sent to unaffiliated candidates with the names of both Republican and Democrat candidates.

But Staiert pointed out that some counties do not have the capability of tabulating those kinds of ballots. Also, she said, in other states a combined ballot has led to a high “spoilage” rate, meaning voters’ ballots were tossed because they marked candidates on both the Republican and Democrat tickets.

The bill gives unaffiliated voters the right to specify whether they want to receive a Democrat or Republican ballot so they wouldn’t be receiving both.

New election commission to study possible fixes to Colorado laws, constitution

Martha Tierney, attorney for the Colorado Democratic Party, and Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, serve on a new Bipartisan Election Advisory Commission formed by Secretary of State Wayne Williams. (SOS photo)
Martha Tierney, attorney for the Colorado Democratic Party, and Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, serve on a new Bipartisan Election Advisory Commission formed by Secretary of State Wayne Williams. (SOS photo)

Two proposed ballot measures dealing with primary elections and a presidential primary will drive up costs for counties to run elections.

Language concerning recall elections added to Colorado’s constitution in 1913 conflicts with current federal and state law.

And what about signature verification for candidate and initiative petitions?

Those topics were discussed Friday during the inaugural meeting of the Bipartisan Election Advisory Commission created by Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams with support from legislators and others concerned with elections.

“We had a great first meeting, discussing ways we can make the election process better in Colorado, and I appreciate the time and input from the state’s leaders who joined us,” Williams said.

He sought input from Gov. John Hickenlooper, legislative leaders from both parties and others about who should serve on the commission. The goal is to come up with solutions to fix election problems identified by Williams, his staff and others.

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