In 2016, a group ran a campaign that put an interesting proposition on the ballot for Coloradans: The question asked voters to change the Constitution to make it harder for future voters to change the Constitution.
With funding from the oil-and-gas industry, the group waged their campaign to “Raise the Bar” and in the fall of 2016 was successful in persuading voters to require new, stricter rules for getting Constitutional questions on the ballot. One new hurdle is that while gathering the nearly 100,000 signatures needed to make the ballot, they must collect signatures from at least 2 percent of registered voters in each of the state’s 35 Senate districts. Another is that if a measure makes the ballot it must pass by 55 percent instead of just a simple majority.
A colorful clash ensued over whether these new rules would be better or worse for everyday Coloradans. Supporters said raising the bar would ensure all voters have a say in what makes the ballot, including those in rural areas, rather than just those in urban areas or along the Front Range. Critics said trying to gather enough signatures from all 35 state Senate districts would be prohibitively difficult, and cost too much money, essentially meaning only well-funded efforts could be successful. They also worried one densely-populated urban or suburban district could potentially have veto power over any proposed ballot measure if voters there refused to sign petitions.
Voters in 2016 passed Raise the Bar by about 55.7 percent. Since then, a question has been whether a campaign this year could clear this higher bar. Today, we know. The Secretary of State’s office announced that a question to voters about whether to change the state’s Constitution to fund education has qualified for November’s ballot.
The measure, financed with help from unions, would raise taxes on Colorado’s higher-income earners to collect more money for public education, fund all-day kindergarten, and increase money spent on pre-school — to the tune of about $1.6 billion. (Because of the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights constitutional amendment, voters must approve tax increases at the ballot box.)
Here’s what the measure would do, according to Chalkbeat Colorado:
- Raise the corporate income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 6 percent.
- Raise the personal income tax rate from a flat 4.63 percent to between 5 percent and 8.25 percent for people earning more than $150,000. The highest tax rate would be paid by people earning $500,000 or more.
- Set the residential property assessment rate at 7 percent of market value for schools. (“That’s lower than it is now but higher than it is predicted to be in 2019 because current law has the unintended effect of gradually reducing the residential assessment rate,” Chalkbeat reports.)
- Set the non-residential property assessment rate at 24 percent of market value, less than the current 29 percent.
The group that campaigned for the measure, Great Schools, Thriving Communities, turned in 179,390 signatures, 49,368 of which were determined invalid, according to the Secretary of State’s office. That left the group with 130,022 valid signatures, which is 31,530 more than they needed. Under the new rules, the group had to collect a total of 98,492 valid signatures, making sure they were able to find 2 percent of registered voters in each individual Senate district willing to sign a petition.
It’s important to note that the number of registered voters in a state Senate district might not be reflective of that district’s population as a whole. Some more populous districts might have fewer registered voters because they have transient or younger populations. Consider: According to data from the Secretary of State’s office, the least populous Senate district by registration is District 21, which encompasses Adams County and the cities of Arvada, Brighton, Commerce City, Federal Heights, and Westminster. It’s represented by Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno. The campaign needed 1,650 signatures out of SD21. It was able to collect 2,583.
By contrast, the most populous Senate district by voter registration is District 23, which encompasses Broomfield, Larimer and Weld counties and pulls in the Denver area, Greeley and Fort Collins. It’s represented by Republican Sen. Vicki Marble. The group needed 2,671 valid signatures there and was able to collect 4,304.
The Senate district where the group was able to collect the most signatures was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Senate District 33, which encompasses the Denver metro area and is represented by Democratic Sen. Angela Williams.
One of the aims of “Raise the Bar” was to ensure ballot measure campaigns would have to earn buy-in from voters in rural parts of the state. Supporters of the education ballot measure campaign were able to do that. In the sprawling, rural Senate District 35, represented by Republican Sen. Larry Crowder and stretching 300 miles across 16 counties from Wolf Creek Pass to the Kansas border, the campaign needed to find 1,844 people willing to sign for the measure — and was able to get 2,416.
“It’s called ‘Raise the Bar,’ it definitely raised the bar,” says Lisa Weil, director of Great Education Colorado. “I think that probably the conventional wisdom was that it would be impossible.”
The ballot measure campaign she helped lead, she said, spent about $350,000, which came out to about $2 per signature, a relatively small amount compared to what previous campaigns have spent. (A pro-oil -and-gas group, data journalist Sandra Fish previously reported, has already spent nearly $8 million, and “much of it on signature gathering.”)
Weil credits a few factors in successfully getting the measure on the ballot beyond a sales pitch centered on improving public schools in a state where teachers walked out of classrooms to rally for more funding and where about half of the school districts have cut back to four-day weeks. The campaign also was made up of a coalition of 20 different organizations including unions who had been working on the issue for two years and relied on a massive volunteer mobilization.
About 1,400 people, most of them volunteers, helped gather signatures. The campaign tapped into existing school district and parent networks in each Senate district. The largely rural Senate District 1 in northeast Colorado, which includes Sedgwick, Yuma, Cheyenne, Elbert and Weld counties and is represented by GOP Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, has about 30 school districts and was one of the first places where signature gatherers hit their goal. They needed 1,936 and they collected 3,744.
Once organizers closed out a district, they diverted their volunteer resources toward the next, Weil said. The campaign also spent 2,000 hours of volunteer time poring over signatures before sending them to the state to make sure they were collected properly.
“I think the school community is kind of unique in this,” Weil said.
Despite the passage of “Raise the Bar,” it currently faces a legal challenge.
Last year, a coalition of groups who opposed the measure including the Colorado Foundation for Universal Health Care, filed a lawsuit that argued it was unconstitutional on freedom of speech grounds, saying, in part, that the state shouldn’t have to ensure rural voters have a say in what question makes it onto a ballot.
This March, a federal judge agreed, saying the new rules violate the doctrine of “one person, one vote” because Colorado’s Senate districts vary wildly by voting population. The Secretary of State’s Office appealed that ruling, and a month later, a federal appeals court re-raised the bar, putting the lower court’s decision on hold.
Campaigns this election season are operating under the assumption that they must follow the higher bar rules.
Whether those rules will stay in place is still being decided in the courts. But in the meantime, Coloradans have found it is still possible to get questions that would change the state’s Constitution on the ballot.
Jon Caldara of the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute fought ‘Raise the Bar’ and opposes the school-funding ballot measure. He says he still feels only wealthy special interest groups will be able to get future questions on the ballot. This group’s success, he says, shows that.
“The [Colorado Education Association] has a network unlike any other network of people in those districts,” he says. “I know of no other special interest that actually has boots on the ground in every Senate district committed to getting this done.”