Referendum O set to return in 2010

<em>(photo/k. Bacongco/Flickr)</em>
(photo/k. Bacongco/Flickr)

Referendum O, a bipartisan attempt to make it more difficult to amend Colorado’s state constitution, didn’t rank among the top controversial ballot initiatives last year. The initiatives that generated heat included one on affirmative-action discrimination and one on the rights of the unborn, which were controversial in part because many voters don’t even believe there are such things as affirmative-action discrimination and the rights of the unborn.

The ballot itself, though, was the longest in the country and powerful evidence for voters that the state’s initiative process has grown unwieldy, resulting in a torrent of initiatives cluttering the constitution unnecessarily with amendments, some well crafted and some terribly written, creating legal battles and generating widespread suspicion of abuse.

Yet Referendum O failed to pass.

Supporters concluded that the referendum aimed at streamlining the ballots fell an ironic victim to voter fatigue.

“There were 14 initiatives on the ballot … People were exhausted and they just said no,” Democratic State Rep. Lois Court of Denver, a longtime advocate of initiative reform, told the Colorado Independent last spring. “It’s a complex issue. People have lives… We have to approach reform cyclically.”

Back to work

The groups behind Ref O have wasted little time restarting the process.

One of those groups is the business advocacy organization Colorado Concern. Executive Director Janice Sinden said in an interview that Ref O supporters have already secured financial commitments to relaunch a campaign for 2010 and that they have learned a great deal from their efforts last year.

“About a month-and-a-half before the election, we did a survey of about 600 households,” she said. “One thing we learned is that, after we talked to people, their understandings changed. We learned you can move on this topic. We saw that education is everything.”

Based on data from that survey and on community meetings held this year by Ref O supporters, Sinden said that voters generally agree it should be more difficult than it is now to change the state constitution.

Referendum O would encourage citizens to propose updates or changes to the state law codes instead of to the state constitution. It would require only a “simple majority” of votes to pass statutory law, for example, but a “super majority” dispersed through every district in the state to pass constitutional law. It would also mandate an early public commenting period to accompany any proposed constitutional amendments.

Colorado Concern and other Ref O supporters were criticized by the conservative Independence Institute last year for supporting reform of the ballot-initiative process, which the institute argues is a more pure form of democracy. Like many organizations on the left and the right, the Institute sees ballot lawmaking as an important way to work around legislators who might be beholden to special interests and also reluctant to vote against reforms that might diminish their power or pay, for example.

Sinden said her organization was prompted by what it saw as an obvious need.

“It’s not a partisan issue. Right now we have lawsuits coming from Amendment 41 and Amendment 54 — [amendments] that have had great unintended consequences. We supported the ideas behind those amendments. We’re big supporters of voters making law. But that law must be vetted so that it works properly, and that’s why statutory change is better.”

Constitutional law is very difficult to fix, she said, echoing people like constitutional law expert Doug Friednash, who this week was a member of a team of attorneys that won an injunction against Amendment 54. That amendment, passed in November, sought to restrict campaign contributions and prevent corruption but was so muddled and reaching that the court found it abridged first amendment freedoms.

The new model campaign

The “new model” campaign for Ref O, as Sinden refers to it, is being orchestrated in part by Colorado’s Future, an organization dedicated to improving public policy. Director Brenda Morrison said the group is holding regional meetings where civic leaders consider questions concerning the ballot-initiative process and constitutional change.

“It can just work better for public policy to grow from personal relationships rather than traditional policy campaigns,” Morrison said.

And finding civic leaders is easy, she said.

“You walk into a town like Sterling and you ask people on the street. Everyone knows the people who have worked hard for their community and who are dedicated to improving it. It’s not about Republicans and Democrats. It’s about leaders.”

Morrison said they hold meetings of roughly 10 people, who are then tasked with holding larger meetings and appointing people to continue the process.

“It beats spending $6 million to $8 million on a cold campaign … and it’s just better in a lot of ways. People engage in the issue,” said Morrison.

“Take a bigger town, like Colorado Springs. There, the north side is completely different than the south side. We’ll hold three or four initial meetings there. The leaders in each of the meetings will have greater impact. They’ll be totally different kind of people in the north and in the south.”

If you’re talking about issues and solutions and not about politics, said Morrison, then the point is to find out what people really think, on both sides of town.

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