[dropcap]M[/dropcap]onday evening, Denver District Judge Robert McGahey ruled that the secretary of state unconstitutionally barred Colorado’s Libertarian party from including the name of its candidates on the September 10 recall-election ballots for Pueblo and Colorado Springs state senate districts.
The ballots for the hot-button elections have already been printed for delivery to overseas voters, and the money for the elections already allotted by the county clerks, giving the decision a shock value the judge took pains to demonstrate he understood. Constitutional provisions governing the matter of whose names are included on the ballot have to take precedent over more recent statutes passed by the legislature and rules made by the secretary of state, McGahey explained to the reeling parties to the suit.
The recall elections being run by Pueblo and El Paso Counties, came in response to gun control legislation passed in the spring, which stirred up a hornets nest of opposition among gun-rights advocates. Directed at Colorado Springs Democratic Senate President John Morse and Democratic Pueblo Senator Angela Giron, these are the first-ever recall efforts in Colorado history, and Coloradans have seen legal battles erupt around them at almost every stage so far.
The case decided by McGahey on Monday centered on the would-be Libertarian candidacies of Richard Anglund, a Democrat from Pueblo, and Gordon Butt, a Libertarian from Colorado Springs. They argued they should have had until 15 days before the special election to round up enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. But the secretary of state’s office, working to effect changes in election administration put in place by a law passed in the spring, said the candidates only had 10 days — and that the Libertarian candidates didn’t make the cut off.
The County Clerks acted on the Secretary’s ruling and the ballots were written and approved and printed. Now, apparently, they have to be tossed.
The ruling is a major blow for the clerks. The new election administration law, HB 1303, was a sweeping legislative achievement. It seeks to ease the voting and registration process and cut costs, mainly by establishing same-day registration and requiring that all voters receive ballots in the mail. The new law also establishes ballot drop-off and voting centers for those seeking to vote in person that would be open for roughly two weeks before Election Day.
But much of the changes turn on mail ballots — on the conveniences that come from the fact that mail ballots go out early and arrive at voters’ doors and can be mailed back to clerks. The recall elections would have been the first elections to benefit from the new law.
Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler intensely opposed the legislation when it was introduced, even though the vast majority of the county clerks who run the state’s elections supported it. Gessler said the bill was, in effect, an invitation to voter fraud, that the risks outweighed the benefits, that Colorado elections had gone well. He characterized the new law as a partisan play to bring more Democrats to the polls.
One of the chief sponsors of the law was Senator Giron.
How McGahey’s ruling will translate on the ground over the coming weeks is hard to say.
The El Paso and Pueblo clerks now would appear to face a daunting task. They said they’re not logistically prepared to handle all in-person elections.
Pueblo Clerk Gilbert Ortiz, who sought legal representation in opposition to the suit, lamented the costs that could come as a result of the ruling.
“This could more than double the recall budget,” he said in a statement. “Pueblo County will be spending about $380,000 for an election that was not budgeted for.”
Ryan Parsell, spokesman for the El Paso County Clerk estimated that re-printing ballots and switching to an all in-person election would cost the county about $90,000.
Others wondered what it meant for overseas voters.
“This ruling could prevent our patriotic military members whose ballots are already in the mail from having their votes counted,” said Jeff Hays, chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party.
Christy Le Lait, campaign manager for A Whole Lot of People for John Morse, agreed with Hays that the question of overseas-voter rights was key.
In a release, she said the ruling “would effectively disenfranchise overseas active military voters. Both state and federal laws require those ballot to go out 45 days before an election so they have enough time to return them and have their vote count. How will troops in Afghanistan or other countries get to cast a ballot if there’s no time to print a send a ballot? Do we not count those ballots until later? That’s not how we treat the people who defend our country.”
In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, Parsell had the sound of a man whose wheels were spinning to get ahead of fast-turning developments.
“We’re trying to do what we can to ensure that voters of [Colorado Springs Senate District 11] have the opportunity to vote in the least disruptive way,” he said during the hearing. “We trying to protect against voter disenfranchisement.”
Parsell noted that voters at risk of disenfranchisement include not just those overseas, but also residents who — for reasons of health, age or finances — might not be able to make it to the polls in person.
George Rivera, who’s running against Giron to represent Pueblo, blamed the new election administration law, sponsored in the Senate by Giron.
“This suit just points to the problems we end up having when legislation is passed too quickly,” he said.