These days, the Vote No on 71 campaign travels with a 10-foot-tall wooden horse.
As opponents see it, that’s what Amendment 71, also known as “Raise the Bar,” really is: a Trojan horse. In the words of Colorado Rep. Joe Salazar, “It’s a big, shiny object meant to lure you into giving up your power.”
Nearly 100 state leaders, community members and activists from a broad swath of organizations gathered Thursday at the state Capitol to denounce the amendment as an attack on democracy.
Amendment 71 would increase the requirements for Colorado voters to change the state constitution. Instead of having to simply collect signatures from a set number of registered voters — 98,492 this year — groups would have to gather the signatures of 2 percent of the voters in each of the state’s 35 senate districts. Constitutional ballot initiatives also would have to snag a 55 percent supermajority to pass, not just the 50-percent-plus-one-vote majority currently required.
Those behind the amendment, like the oil and gas industry, say it would protect the state’s constitution from being manipulated by outside interests, and ensure that Coloradans from rural districts still have a say.
“Amendment 71 will truly show the voice of the people. All parts of Colorado will need to show support, not just from a few select locations,” said Doug Flanders, policy director for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
But the ever-growing opposition movement says “raising the bar” would actually silence the people’s voice.
Swaying to Lennon’s “Power To The People” and holding signs that read “Protect your rights,” “Defend our democracy” and “Corporations ate my state,” the crowd cheered as group leaders and lawmakers spoke out against the amendment.
Rudy Gonzales, the executive director of Latino community organization Servicios de La Raza — Services for the People — called attention to the diverse coalition’s limited funding. He said the Raise the Bar campaign had accused opposition leaders of having high salaries and using “dark money” contributions. “They talked about dark money, that we’re not transparent,” he said. “The only dark money we have is that you can’t see it, even in the light. There is no money.”
As of the latest campaign filing deadline on September 28th, Raise the Bar had raised more than $4.1 million — 75 percent of that came from the oil and gas industry — and spent over $2.9 million. That includes nearly $1 million spent on signature gathering. The opposition campaign’s four different committees, combined, had spent almost exactly one-ten thousandth of that: $295. That number has likely increased after Thursday’s event.
The argument behind Raise the Bar is that Colorado’s constitution is simply too easy to amend, and the process behind it shuts out rural voices. The population-dense cities of the Front Range have historically accounted for the majority of all ballot initiative signatures.
Lizzy Stefan, executive director of youth voter engagement group New Era Colorado, says #71’s new rules wouldn’t make the process more inclusive. Instead, the high costs involved would prohibit the ability of grassroots groups to ever meet the signature threshold.
“Rather than make the process more thoughtful or more rigorous,” she said, “the new requirements would simply make it more expensive to bring a question to the voters. The wealthiest industries and individuals will become gatekeepers to our constitution.”
Sam Gilchrist, director of the Colorado chapter of the AFL-CIO union group, pointed out what he sees as a hypocrisy in the Raise the Bar effort: The campaign was unable to collect 2 percent of signatures from all 35 senate districts, as the measure would require.
“If you can’t meet your own threshold, maybe you shouldn’t push an amendment that forces others to do the same,” Gilchrist said.
Various groups on both sides of the political aisle oppose Raise the Bar: the Colorado Firearms Coalition, the TABOR committee; both the Democrat and Republican parties of Denver; NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado and pro-life group Colorado Right to Life. Multiple groups focused on environmental issues and Latino advocacy are also fighting it.
State Sen. Irene Aguilar, who has been a major proponent of Colorado’s universal healthcare initiative, ColoradoCare, emphasized the common goal among #71’s opposing groups, despite their diversity.
“I know all of you are not with me on universal healthcare and Amendment 69, and that’s ok,” she said. “But how many of you are glad that we were able to, without any money, collect 100,000 signatures from the people to put this before the people for discussion? Why do you have to be rich to have your opinion heard?”
Many of the groups present have spent months fighting for other ballot measures, like ColoradoCare, an increased minimum wage or the failed attempts at local control over fracking. That work pushed them behind schedule in the fight against Amendment 71: With less than a month left before the election, Thursday’s rally was the first official opposition event.
Despite a tiny budget and no major ad campaign, the dozens of groups that oppose Raise the Bar are hopeful in the power of their human capital.
They have to be, they say. In comparing the amendment to a Trojan horse, Salazar said, “Hidden inside are big oil, big business, big special interests waiting to limit your constitutional rights.”
Photo credit: Lauren Swain