Election-year push for election-law timeout likely doomed

DENVER — The state’s major election reform bill passed last year needs tuning up, which is typical with such an ambitious bill, most people at the capitol will tell you — those who love it and those who hate it.

But the crew of would-be mechanics that came out Monday asking lawmakers to, in effect, put the bill up on blocks for two years will very likely fail to persuade.

Three of the people speaking in favor of the plan Monday are Republicans engaged in campaigns for office in which they’ll need every vote they can get.

Secretary of State Scott Gessler is running to defeat high-profile incumbent Governor John Hickenlooper and has been railing against House Bill 1303 since well before it passed. He says it was a rush to failure and that it was pushed by Democrats looking for an advantage at the polls.

El Paso County Clerk Wayne Williams is running for secretary of state, his first try at statewide office — and it’s an office that has gained great attention since Gessler took it over in 2010. Near weekly headlines ever since yelling questions about the wisdom of electing an unabashed partisan like Gessler to run the state’s elections at least to some degree will have woken up more voters to the significance of the job.

And Victor Head, the conservative activist plumber who spearheaded the successful recall effort against former Senator Angela Giron in Pueblo last summer, is running to replace Clerk Bo Ortiz in Democratic Pueblo this year.

House Bill 1303 established same-day voter registration, shortened residency requirements and required clerks to mail ballots to all registered voters. The authors of the bill put in place recommendations made by clerks aimed at modernizing election administration, reducing costs and expanding participation. Detractors have said the law tangled up existing rules and constitutional provisions and opened up the system to fraud. And the growing list of court cases that have followed its passage has given those charges weight.

A majority of Senate Republicans have already signed onto the bill officially proposing the two-year timeout on the 1303 reforms. And Democratic Senate leadership has already approved the bill for late introduction — which doesn’t mean it won’t then immediately land on tracks headed straight to the heart of a kill committee.

Meantime, the bill’s sponsors are petitioning the leadership of the Senate and House to form a bipartisan committee to consider fixes to the reform law.

“We are not proposing a quote-quote Republican fix for 1303 or a repeal of 1303,” said senator Kevin Grantham from Cañon City. “We’re proposing a bipartisan timeout.”

Grantham is joined by Senators Kevin Lundberg from Berthoud, Ellen Roberts from Durango, Libby Szabo from Arvada and Carole Murray from Castle Rock.

Watching the speakers Monday, Denver Democratic Senator Jessie Ulibarri and Boulder Representative Dicky Hullinghorst were baldly skeptical.

“A federal, bipartisan commission found that Colorado has one of the best voting systems, which is both secure and modern,” said Ulibarri. Others have similarly underlined the recent findings of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, chaired by President Obama’s top election attorney, Robert Bauer, and Mitt Romney’s lead election attorney and longtime Republican GOP operative, Benjamin Ginsberg. The report mostly recommends to all states the kinds of reforms put in place by HB 1303 in Colorado.

Ulibarri suggested the call to stall the ongoing work to cement the election administration reforms and expand voter participation a mere ten months from Election Day is probably the bigger story that should come out of the press conference.

Ulibarri said a bipartisan coalition was already formed during the drafting of 1303, which a majority of Colorado clerks supported — the overwhelming majority of whom are Republican office holders. “Is this really a bipartisan proposal?” “Is it serious, coming this late into the session?” were the kinds of questions hanging in the air around them.

“This was a press conference from the far right,” Ulibarri concluded.

[ Photo by Tessa Cheek ]