Lit fuse: First lawsuit this election cycle drops over petitions in Colorado. Will it be the last?

Lit fuse: First lawsuit this election cycle drops over petitions in Colorado. Will it be the last?

A lawsuit that challenges the petition-gathering tactics of a candidate for Congress in Colorado might have lit the fuse for another ballot-access bomb in the race for governor.

This week, five voters from Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn’s district, which is anchored in Colorado Springs, allege in a lawsuit against the Secretary of State that people the campaign hired to gather petitions for him didn’t meet the legal requirements to do so. 

At the heart of the complaint is whether about half a dozen of those people technically lived in Colorado or just registered to vote here —as required— at the time they helped gather signatures for him.

Lamborn, who has been in office for a decade, is in a five-way primary with Republican State Sen. Owen Hill, El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, retired Texas judge Bill Rhea and Tyler Stevens, a former mayor of Green Mountain Falls.

The lawsuit, filed against the Secretary of State and not Lamborn or his campaign, asks a Denver District Court judge to order the Secretary of State to reject enough petitions to keep Lamborn off the ballot.

In Colorado, candidates for offices from Congress to governor who don’t want to try and earn votes through the state’s caucus-and-assembly process can try to get on a primary ballot directly by gathering enough petition signatures from registered voters. Petition-gatherers must live here and be registered to vote here, among other requirements. Once the Secretary of State’s Office declares a candidate’s petitions sufficient, a challenger has five days to protest that decision in Denver district court.

That’s what election lawyer Michael Francisco did regarding Lamborn’s petitions. In the suit he alleges about half a dozen people Lamborn’s campaign hired to circulate the campaign’s petitions violated the spirit of Colorado’s residency laws.

From the suit:

Based on public sources, several of these circulators are from Michigan, not Colorado. None appear to have a Colorado driver’s license. None appear to have a vehicle registered in Colorado. Four suspiciously registered to vote on the same day, just before circulating petitions—January 23, 2018, two registered on the same day even later—February 16, 2018, and one was never registered to vote. One began collecting signatures one day after registering to vote.

In Colorado, people can register to vote easily online, and can even vote on the same day they register thanks to voting laws passed here in the past decade. Colorado’s GOP Secretary of State, Wayne Williams, has done outreach campaigns to make sure homeless people register to vote.

Colorado’s voter registration laws stipulate:

The residence of a person is the principal or primary home or place of abode of a person. A principal or primary home or place of abode is that home or place in which a person’s habitation is fixed and to which that person, whenever absent, has the present intention of returning after a departure or absence, regardless of the duration of the absence. A residence is a permanent building or part of a building and may include a house, condominium, apartment, room in a house, or mobile home. No vacant lot or business address shall be considered a residence.

In determining what is the principal or primary place of abode of a person, the following circumstances relating to the person shall be taken into account: Business pursuits, employment, income sources, residence for income or other tax purposes, age, marital status, residence of parents, spouse or civil union partner, and children, if any, leaseholds, situs of personal and real property, existence of any other residences and the amount of time spent at each residence, and motor vehicle registration. … The residence given for voting purposes shall be the same as the residence given for motor vehicle registration and for state income tax purposes. … A person shall not be considered to have gained a residence in this state, or in any county or municipality in this state, while retaining a home or domicile elsewhere.

“The Secretary wrongly accepted numerous petitions with signatures because the Circulator appeared on a paper review to be registered to vote in compliance with Colorado law,” reads the Lamborn petitions lawsuit.

But the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections in Colorado and also determines whether enough valid petitions were turned in properly by campaigns, did its job as required by law, says its operations and legal manager Ben Schler.

“We always have concern about whether or not folks are fully complying with the law,” Schler said. “We are completely fine with a court being the avenue to look into this. From our perspective, these folks were eligible to circulate petitions just from what we looked at.”

He added that it’s understandable someone with questions about a petition circulator’s residency would file a lawsuit if they wanted to dig deeper.

Both Francisco and Scher said they expect Lamborn’s campaign to intervene in the lawsuit so it has a voice in the process. Francisco said he hopes Lamborn’s team can produce the seven circulators as witnesses so he can cross-examine them.

Lamborn’s campaign did not return a voice message or an email by the time this story was posted.

Campaigns often hire companies who specialize in gathering signatures. In 2016, a scandal erupted in the large Republican primary for U.S. Senate when media reported forgery in the petition process. In that race, three candidates had to file lawsuits in order to get on the primary ballot. 

The 2016 ballot debacle led to new, stricter rules for the petition-gathering process. State officials cross-check signatures against official records and verify a voter’s signature.

This year, more than double the number of candidates are trying to petition onto the ballot than in 2016.*

The lawsuit over Lamborn’s petitions is the first one this cycle, said Secretary of State spokeswoman Lynn Bartels. But it’s not the first allegation of shenanigans in the petition process. 

Last week, the campaign of GOP gubernatorial hopeful Doug Robinson accused Republican rival Walker Stapleton, the current state treasurer, of using dubious petition gatherers to help get him on the June 26 ballot in his bid for governor.

The Secretary of State’s Office looked into it and determined nothing was awry, and Stapleton’s campaign dismissed the allegations. But they aren’t likely to go away. The campaign used the same petition-gathering company as Lamborn, Kennedy Enterprises of Colorado Springs. Asked about the Lamborn petitions, Dan Kennedy, who runs the firm, said to the best of his knowledge all of the petition circulators “are Colorado residents,” and all the signatures “were gathered legally.”

The Secretary of State’s office is still reviewing Stapleton’s gubernatorial petitions, which the campaign turned in on Feb. 23. Bartles has a pretty good idea about what will happen next.

“Everybody is going to ask for the signatures for Walker and go through them, and then they’re going to say, ‘We spotted this, and we spotted this, and we spotted this,’” she says, adding, “It’s ProgressNow in 2016.”

That’s a reference to the Colorado progressive group that combed through the signatures of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jon Keyser two years ago and alerted media to discrepancies that ended up igniting a massive ballot bomb that dominated the narrative of the primary. 

Upon learning about the lawsuit related to Lamborn’s campaign, ProgressNow director Ian Silverii was quick to draw a line to the allegations against Stapleton, who used the same petition-gathering firm as Lamborn and whose petitions have not yet been OKed by the Secretary of State. 

“It’s clear to me Republicans in Colorado need to get their houses in order when it comes to ballot access,” Silverii said. “If this is the first lawsuit about signatures this cycle I highly doubt it will be the last.”

Brett Maney, the spokeswoman for Robinson’s campaign, said a potential lawsuit over Stapleton’s petitions isn’t off the table. 

“I would wager that we wouldn’t be the only ones looking at a potential lawsuit here,” she said.

Stapleton’s campaign declined to comment.

Francisco, who filed the Lamborn petition lawsuit, says he voted for at least three of the Republicans in that race. Some of the plaintiffs in the suit, he says, are offended Lamborn did not go through the caucus-assembly process and want to make sure he followed the law when gathering petitions. 

Asked if he worried some might wonder if his lawsuit is just political, Francisco said he wouldn’t waste his time on a case if he didn’t think he had every chance and intention of prevailing.

“It’s against a politician,” he said of the suit, “and everybody probably has a political interest when it comes to these sorts of cases. But it’s a serious legal challenge for sure.”

 

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story under-represented the percentage of candidates petitioning onto the ballot this year versus 2016.

Photo by André Hofmeister for Creative Commons on Flickr.

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyHutchins and email him at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.

1 Comment

  1. FIN Denver on said:

    If I comprehend what I have read, the candidate’s campaign can make errors in hiring petition circulators, and if caught (and deemed intentional) doing this, can avoid the penalty of being eliminated from the ballot permanently, and Suzie Q Sue in order to give it a go anyway.

    THAT seems fair.

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