Legislation introduced by Colorado House Speaker Terrance Carroll that would reform the state’s notoriously loose ballot-initiative petition process passed the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee Tuesday with a unanimous vote, underlining the bipartisan support the bill has gained in the week since it was introduced, partly due to the collaborative approach the speaker, a Denver Democrat, used in drafting the language.
The bill focuses on the flaws that have come to define signature-collecting in the state, which is how voters determine which initiatives will make the ballot. Many of the problems addressed by the new legislation, H.B. 1326, marred last election season, when 128 versions of proposed initiatives were filed with the state and 14 appeared on the ballot to make it the longest voter ballot in the country.
Among other measures, the new law would seek to beef up identity requirements and legal recourse in cases of fraud; require petition circulators to provide specific forms of identification and enroll in training provided by the secretary of state’s office; strengthen laws against using so-called third-party circulators, or people paid by the circulators whose names appear on the signed petition sheets; and call for paid circulators to receive hourly wages or salaries instead of being paid according to how many signatures they gather, a move that has cut fraud in other states by eliminating a prime incentive.
The hearing opened with video of a 14-year-old girl hired to collect signatures for Proposition 49. She admitted to knowing nothing “about, like, laws or government” and said the man who hired her told her to say she was “18 if anyone asks.” The law states petition circulators must be 18 or older.
The hearing room was also festooned with photos of empty lots, pay-day loan buildings and other random non-residential addresses petition circulators listed as their Colorado home addresses. These circulators, although clear perpetrators of fraud, are currently beyond the jurisdiction of the state authorities who would investigate them.
Yet even if these circulators could be found, as Citizens for Integrity’s Mark Grueskin explained to the committee, the state’s hands are tied.
“Once the secretary of state certifies the signatures before the election, there is no legal challenge that can be raised,” he said.
It was one of the open secrets about the process that were revealed every five minutes or so during the first hour of the hearing, a laundry list of loopholes and vagaries that drew nods and head-shakes and ironical laughs from among the lawmakers and witnesses.
Bill co-sponsor Rep. Lois Court, a Denver Democrat, added two sections to the law that demonstrated her familiarity with the initiative process, which she admitted was a longtime area of interest — one of her “passions” both as a lawmaker and a citizen.
Where the main objective of the bill is to “put teeth and trust” back in the system by preventing fraud, Court included measures to ensure voters were better informed.
As a result, the law would place language on all petitions that clearly state that those who are signing the petition are in favor of placing the initiative on the ballot.
The law would also make a distinction on the ballot between proposed changes to the state Constitution and proposed changes to state laws or statutes. The first would be labeled “amendments” and the second “propositions.”
Court said the point would be to remind voters of the very significant distinction and begin to “permeate voters’ consciousness.”
In his testimony, Grueskin reinforced Court’s concerns. With the initiative process, he said, “we’re asking electors to become legislators” and any process that allows a 14-year-old to be a public representative of that process is ripe for abuse at all levels.
“The person asking that of an elector should know something about government and the law,” he said.
The hearing was characterized by a tension that hangs about the initiative process at all levels, one where lawmakers are loath to tread on the citizens’ fundamental rights to directly participate in their government, to make laws as a matter of free speech, but where they also feel compelled to protect citizens from abuse and to assume their responsibilities as representative officials elected and paid to dedicate themselves to making laws and running the government in the place of their busy constituents.
Pete Hamill of Colorado Concern and the Denver Chamber of Commerce, who also testified in favor of the bill, said he thought citizens “needed to know the process is solid.
“Citizens in Colorado feel strongly about the initiative process, but I think we have reached a tipping point, where trust is eroding,” he said.
Now that the bill has cleared the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, it will move to the Appropriations Committee.