Capitol Review: Lawmakers expanded voter access, took aim at dark money

Jena Griswold, the state's first elected Democratic secretary of state in decades, helped push a slew of election and voting reforms this session. (Photo by Evan Semón)

Editor’s note: The Indy is publishing a series of stories reviewing the 2019 legislative session in Colorado. Here, we focus on voting and elections. Other stories highlight changes concerning opioids, immigration, criminal justice and climate.

The Colorado legislature’s decision to sign on to the National Popular Vote Interstate Contract — a program aimed at abolishing the Electoral College — got most of the headlines this year on the elections front.

But with Democrats in charge at the Capitol, lawmakers took more than a dozen other steps to reform the state’s voting systems. The changes generally took aim at dark money, big money and lack of access in Colorado elections.

“We can’t have our voices drowned out by massive secret political spending. Coloradans deserve to know who is trying to influence their vote and how they are trying to do it,” Jena Griswold, the first elected Democratic secretary of state in decades, told lawmakers at the beginning of the session. “We must bring transparency to the millions and millions of dollars used to influence our elections.”

Here are some of the most significant voting and election reforms passed this year:

HB-1318: Nonprofit groups that donate $10,000 or more in support of a super PAC — formally known as an independent expenditure committee or IEC — would have to disclose who their donors are, by name.

The bill, titled The Clean Campaign Act of 2019 and pushed largely by Aurora Rep. Mike Weissman, also sets out some rules for businesses pouring big money into elections; namely, they’d have to identify themselves or their corporate owners if they make donations of $10,000 through IECs. HB-1318, which awaits the governor’s signature, should force some more transparency from labor unions and nonprofit groups, who routinely dump millions on Colorado elections with little-to-no disclosure required.

Perhaps equally consequential in The Clean Campaign Act is a provision requiring businesses to put their names on political ads they’ve funded. That means that if you get a mailer from a nebulously named PAC — say, Coloradans for Colorado Values — the mailer would have to not only disclose that Coloradans for Colorado Values authored the ad, but also add the name of the entity that paid for it. Digital ads would have to disclose committee or business backers, too.

HB-1278: Colorado elections are arguably the most accessible in the country, as national watchdogs frequently proclaim and local officials across the political spectrum frequently boast.

Denver Rep. Susan Lontine and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder — both Democrats — saw room for improvement, and pushed this bill as a way to make it even easier for Coloradans to register to vote and then follow through by actually voting.

The measure, also awaiting the governor’s signature, adds polling centers and ballot drop boxes throughout the state in targeted ways: on college campuses, communities with high minority populations and drop-off boxes in areas where people have previously had to drive longer distances to vote.

It’s not coincidental that the bill was carried by Democrats. One of its primary aims is to promote turnout among young people and marginalized, minority populations — two groups that don’t vote in high numbers and whose voting rights and access are typically championed by Democrats.

More than two-dozen county clerks testified against this bill, successfully beating back a proposal that would have extended voting center hours to 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. That, some argued, would have required more staff and money for an extension with relatively low projected impact. Most of those opposed came from rural counties. The bill passed along party lines.

HB-1278 also requires candidates to gather more signatures to qualify as a third-party or unaffiliated candidate. Some clerks opposed that requirement as well, arguing that it needlessly undercuts the viability of candidates who aren’t pushing either major party’s message. Unaffiliated voters comprise a plurality of the state’s electorate

SB-235: Colorado already has an automatic voter registration system. This bill expands on it by automatically registering anyone over 18 who signs up for Medicaid or gets a new driver’s license or generic ID card.

HB-1266: This bill would restore voting rights to some 9,000-plus people with felony convictions who are out on parole. It’s a major step toward re-enfranchising felons in Colorado. A full re-enfranchisement would allow more than 20,000 felons currently incarcerated to vote, but move that doesn’t appear to be in the offing. The governor has not said yet whether he intends to sign this bill, and dodged a question about it when The Independent asked last week.

Maybe next time

Last November, Colorado voters were asked whether they believe the minimum age for a state lawmaker should be reduced from 25 to 21. The answer was a resounding no. The same sentiment that doomed that measure — generally, it centers on mistrust of young people’s judgment and ability to make thoughtful electoral and legislative choices — also killed a related measure at the Capitol this year. That bill, HB-1243, would have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections. It was sponsored by two Democrats and backed by progressive groups, but Democrats voted to kill the bill before it could get to the House floor.

Another bill that died early in the process would have made Election Day an official state holiday in Colorado. The plan was to simultaneously scrap Columbus Day as a state holiday. In a counterintuitive twist, however, the group New Era Colorado, which is the state’s most potent organization advocating for young people getting involved in politics, pushed for the bill to be killed. Its members and others argued that an Election Day holiday, intended to give people even more time to get to vote, would actually lead to more people taking the day off and heading to the mountains or, really, doing anything but voting. The plan never saw daylight.

 

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