Election bill sets stage for Senate theater

DENVER — It’s a fairly technical bill that aims to smooth out election-administration glitches, but in Colorado, election administration has become almost as politically charged a topic as gun rights, so relatively small-bore House Bill 1164 already has been the subject of deep back-room review and hallway lobbying and today it was the first filibuster of the 2014 legislative session. In the end, the bill passed over Republican objections.

Democrats supported the bill. Republicans opposed it. Democrats say it solves problems that have long needed solving. Republicans say it effectively eliminates residency requirements and opens up elections to fraud.

“This bill is filled with a toxic blend of bad ideas and unintended consequences,” said Senator Kevin Grantham of Cañon City last week when the bill’s Republican sponsors, Ellen Roberts from Durango and Carole Murray from Castle Rock, pulled their support.

Republican Senator David Balmer from Centennial suggested the bill could bend the laws of time and space with its sheer awfulness.

The underlying issue, mostly unarticulated, is that House Bill 1164 will effectively bolster reforms put in place by last year’s larger bill and so more deeply entrench those reforms — reforms mainly aimed at increasing voter participation that Republicans, led by Secretary of State Scott Gessler, now a candidate for governor, oppose.

But the fact is that in less than two months, 170 Colorado towns are scheduled to hold what their clerks and officials describe as impossible elections. Some combination of last year’s law, constitutional provisions and rules put in place by Gessler have left these communities in the lurch. Some of the towns are home to tiny populations. Others reach to as many as 90,000 residents.

Karen Goldman, Deputy City Clerk for Aurora, explained that right now special districts and municipalities are required to open a voter service center eight days before an election, even if the rural special district is home to no actual buildings or the municipality is home to only a few hundred people.

The new laws and rule-making would also require administrators to verify voter signatures when they register. But unlike county clerks, city clerks or hired election officials don’t have access to the live voter roll database called SCORE, where signatures can be immediately checked. Granting Goldman and her colleagues access to the database would translate as roughly 1,600 more sets of eyes roaming over those rolls, something neither Goldman nor the secretary of state are comfortable with.

“We’re being told we have to do something we can’t possibly do,” she said.

Seated beside the bill's sponsor, Jessie Ulibarri of Denver, election watcher and activist Marilyn Marks of Citizen Center called HB 1164 'a license for corruption' during testimony in the Senate's State Affairs Committee.
Seated beside the bill’s sponsor, Jessie Ulibarri of Denver, election watcher and activist Marilyn Marks of Citizen Center called HB 1164 ‘a license for corruption’ during testimony in the Senate’s State Affairs Committee.

No one disagreed with Goldman on that point. They did, however, disagree on whether 1164 was a technical fix for a technical problem, or a bandaid for last year’s “hopelessly flawed” election reform.

“Our primary objection to 1164 is its abolition of all local residency requirements for voting in local elections,” Grantham said, citing Republican year-long objections to the election reform’s shortened residency requirements and same-day voter registration.

When it comes to certain kinds of special-district elections, however, “moving” to a district and voting there on the same day has always been possible, said Micki Wadhams, who has run special-district elections for some 25 years.

“An eligible elector in a special district doesn’t  have to be a resident,” she said in testimony delivered last week. “We have many special districts out there that don’t have residents and just have property-owner electors…  A property owner can become a property owner and vote on the day of an election, as can their spouse.”

Wadhams added that far from being an outcome of last years’s law, special districts have been dealing with this definition of an eligible elector for decades. The only thing 1164 would change about that particular definition would be to add same-sex civil union partners as spouses to the list of eligible voters.

Senator Ted Harvey, a Republican from Highlands Ranch, brought up other provisions of last year’s bill opponents have decried. He asked . Wadham’s how election integrity could be assured in an all-mail-ballot, all-property-owner election.

The back and forth continued for several minutes in committee and continued for hours on the Senate floor.

[ Still from Senator Greg Brophy on the Senate floor this morning. Is it milk or orange juice? Reform or ‘fraudification’?