Coloradans have voted to “Raise the Bar” on constitutional ballot measures, a move that proponents say will protect the state constitution, but that critics say is an attack on direct democracy.
As of 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Secretary of State’s office showed that Amendment 71 was ahead 57 percent to 43 percent, with 39 of 64 counties reporting. With its passage, petitioners who want to place an amendment on the ballot will have to gather signatures from each of Colorado’s 35 state Senate districts, meaning it’s possible one contrarian district could keep an amendment initiative off the ballot.
Raise the Bar also requires that constitutional measures, including those referred to the people by lawmakers, garner a supermajority of 55 percent of voter approval to pass rather than the simple majority currently required.
“Our team is proud to be a part of this state-wide grass-roots effort. We congratulate Colorado voters on choosing to bring reason instead of just slogans to our Constitutional processes,” campaign co-chair Lee White said in a statement Tuesday night.
Tim Hoover, communications director for the Colorado Fiscal Institute and a spokesman for the opposition campaign, said it simply didn’t have enough money to adequately advertise its message.
“We tried to talk to some people about the details. I think a lot of people just didn’t understand the way this would actually work,” he said.
Polls leading up to the election showed support for Raise the Bar increased over time. In late August, a Magellan Strategies poll had support at 48 percent, compared 37 percent opposed. By Nov. 2, the same polling group showed a 51 percent/41 percent breakdown. The margins Tuesday night, at 57 percent supporting to 43 percent opposed, were wider than expected.
Amendment 71 had a large and diverse group of supporters, including every living governor of Colorado, business associations from dairy farmers to welders to realtors, and the state chamber of commerce. Its largest donor by far was the oil and gas industry.
Supporters argued that Raise the Bar would keep Colorado’s constitution safe from special interests, which they said used the state as a dumping ground for experimental ballot measures like recreational marijuana.
“There’s broad recognition that the constitutional amendment process in the state has been abused by special interest groups on the left and the right, and the people are kind of tired of it,” said campaign consultant Josh Penry. “They’re tired of blue books that look like phone books.”
Proponents said that the new requirements will ensure that all Coloradans have a say in what makes the ballot, including those in rural areas, not just voters in Front Range cities. Folks in urban areas currently make up a large majority of signatures for Colorado ballot measures.
Proponents also said that Coloradans abuse the process of amending the constitution to pass amendments that would more sense as statutes, which are not sealed into the constitution. Opponents argue that constitutional amendments are preferable, because unlike statutes, the legislature cannot gut or repeal them.
The coalition against Raise the Bar was even more diverse than the campaign supporting it. Various groups on both sides of the political aisle opposed it, including 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, and multiple groups focused on environmental issues and Latino advocacy. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis also spoke out against it.
Many critics used the fact that so many politicians and big-money groups backed the measure as evidence that it’s a way to strip the power of direct democracy from the people. The No on 71 campaign traveled around the state with a 10-foot-tall wooden horse, calling it a Trojan horse; State Rep. Joe Salazar defined it as “a big, shiny object meant to lure you into giving up your power.”
Critics said that gathering enough signatures from all 35 state Senate districts would be prohibitively difficult, requiring dozens of different ground operations and multiple campaign teams that only the wealthiest campaigns will be able to afford. Campaigns would have to hire more professional signature gatherers — or train more volunteers — to circulate petitions statewide, a cost that grassroots organizations simply cannot bear.
Tricia Olson, an organizer for the Yes for Health and Safety over Fracking campaign, said Raise the Bar would do nothing less than “eliminate or destroy the initiative process.”
Some critics have complained that Raise the Bar didn’t follow its own proposed rules — that is, it didn’t collect signatures from every single district. But it did pass with more than the proposed 55 percent majority.
“We could pass it at 75 percent and the special interest groups that thrive under the current system would still thrash and wail and gnash teeth,” Penry said.
Oil and gas industry groups were the largest contributors by far. Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy, and Energy— a group funded by oil and gas corporations Anadarko and Noble Energy— donated $2.8 million of the $5.1 million the campaign raised it total. Vital for Colorado, another oil and gas industry group, gave $600,000, as did the Colorado Petroleum Council. The campaign had spent $4.3 million as of Oct. 31, the latest campaign filing deadline.
“What we spent is what we needed to spend to argue the case for a solution to a complex problem amid the cacophony of a presidential election,” Penry said.
The opposition had far less money to spend, and didn’t start fundraising until much later in the game. All told, it raised less than $1 million, and spent less than $830,000. The National Education Association gave half a million, environmental group River Habitat Preservation Association gave $100,000, and service workers union organization SEIU gave a little over $40K.
Hoover was clearly disappointed by the loss, and said that the campaign was “conceding but not surrendering.”
“These wealthy social interests may have tried to make it harder for ordinary citizens to have access to ballot initiatives, but they’ll never succeed in silencing the voice of the people,” he said. “Even without all of their bushels of money, organizations like ours will continue to fight for what’s right.”
Photo credit: znarled, Creative Commons, Flickr