Hickenlooper signs controversial open records elections bill

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper today signed a controversial bill that would restrict public access to government records, including ballots. Advocacy, elections and government watchdog groups across the political spectrum had called on Hickenlooper to veto the bill and have signaled their intent to file suit against the state if it should become law.

In a release, Marilyn Marks, founder of the Citizen Center and one of the bill’s main detractors, called it a “state-wide embarrassment to open government and the people’s right to verify their elections.” She said she hoped planned litigation would prevent the law taking effect “prior to the upcoming elections where full transparency is unquestionably required.”

Critics of the legislation told the Independent they saw the bill as a case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” that, although citizen oversight can weigh on officials, including county clerks, government transparency and accountability is too valuable in a democracy to dilute.

In a release Hickenlooper lauded the bill for clarifying “the security and chain of custody for ballots throughout the election season, making certain our elections are properly administered.”

He noted that, as a key swing state this presidential election, Colorado’s elections would be subject to national scrutiny.

On that score, Hickenlooper and the opponents of the bill will agree.

Given that battles over voting rights have plagued states coast to coast in the last two years and that Colorado has already been the site of intense back-and-forths over voter registration and ballot-mailing rules, groups demanding a veto on HB 1036 fear public review was the best guarantee of election integrity.

Secretary of State Scott Gessler said the bill was a “step in the right direction” but that it needed work.

“[G]roups have expressed trepidation about the new law. In some ways I agree with their concerns. For instance, new procedures and timelines fit awkwardly within the current recall provisions, creating confusion. Unfortunately, chances to make improvements were limited.”

Gessler said the state Senate sat on the bill as a part of a partisan game of legislative poker, where the divided chambers, the Republican House and Democratic Senate, took turns holding and dealing out bills for action.

“This summer, I’ll work with legislators, county clerks and the public to identify ways to improve upon the law,” Gessler continued in his release. “I will work toward a policy that clearly defines procedures that preserve election transparency, while safeguarding voters’ privacy. Hopefully we can strike the right balance and create a better law next legislative session.”

Hickenlooper’s full release:

DENVER ­— Thursday, June 7, 2012 — Gov. John Hickenlooper today signed HB12-1036, clarifying Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) requests and released this statement:

“HB12-1036 has two important sections that required passage this year. The section relating to CORA of administrative records is a top priority to departments that conduct administrative investigations that are important to the health and safety of Coloradans. This portion of the bill is a widely accepted compromise that was supported by the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Regulatory Agencies, and the Department of Public Health and Environment among others.

“The more controversial portion of the bill relates to CORA of ballots. We have spent the past month engaging on this topic, hearing feedback from people across the state, advocacy organizations and local governments including clerks and recorders from 29 counties.

“We believe that this legislation is imperfect but necessary. The approaching 2012 general election could be the largest in Colorado’s history, and with our position in the national spotlight, we must ensure the integrity of the election process. This bill clarifies the security and chain of custody for ballots throughout the election season, making certain our elections are properly administered.

“It is important that the public have reasonable access to ballots before an election is certified. In particular, the two Ute tribes in Colorado should have access in respect of their sovereignty. We believe this public interest could be better protected if the scope of the CORA blackout was more narrowly tailored. These nuances are worth further exploration by the General Assembly, but are not of sufficient weight and gravity to justify a veto.

“It’s clear that the sponsors of this legislation tried to thread a very difficult needle. We appreciate their work.”

[ Image of Gov. John Hickenlooper via WikiCommons. ]

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