The longest floor debates of the legislative year have revolved around a controversial measure that aims to fix problems revealed by a Democratic-backed election law passed last year that some Republicans equate to “Stalin-like” policy.
The multiple hours of debate have offered Republicans an opportunity to lambast last year’s House Bill 1303, suggesting that the measure was so flawed that Democrats must now come back with a “fix it” bill this year.
Last year’s law permitted same-day voter registration and required that all voters receive a mail ballot.
The measure this year, House Bill 1164, sponsored by Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster, and House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, passed the Senate after reconsideration on Friday by a party-line vote of 18-16, with one Republican excused.
The measure had started with bipartisan support, but two Republicans withdrew their sponsorship — Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango and Rep. Carole Murray of Castle Rock.
The bill takes aim at confusing residency requirements, seeking to standardize the many rules. It would align residency requirements by deleting minimums for municipal, special district and school board elections, creating one 22-day residency rule.
Problems around residency requirements arose following the November election resulting in several lawsuits. The current requirements include 22 days to vote in statewide and federal races; 30 days to vote in municipal elections; 30 days to vote in special district elections; and 25 days to vote in school board elections.
Republicans believe HB 1164 is simply extending their concerns from HB 1303 to special district elections, eliminating local control and opening the door for fraud and corruption.
Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, has been one of the most vocal critics. He went as far as to compare the measure to policies enacted by former Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin.
One of his biggest concerns is that the measure limits who can be poll watchers, requiring that they come from local governments where the elections are being held, denying the ability for a candidate to choose who reviews the count.
“What we are saying in this bill is what Stalin said when he made that quote, ‘I don’t care what the votes are as long as I’m counting the votes,’” surmised Harvey.
There was a bit of a dustup on Monday when infamous poll watcher Marilyn Marks watched the more than seven-hour second reading debate from the Senate floor. Marks — founder of the Aspen-based Citizen Center — has been passionately advocating against passage of the bill. She was invited by several Republicans to sit on the floor. Marks is not a registered lobbyist, though she has been advising several Republican lawmakers on amendments.
“I have spent a huge amount of time over the last five years working on the details of elections law and the policies, and I had worked a lot with the senators on going through this bill…” explained Marks, saying Harvey had invited her onto the floor.
Another dose of drama came when Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs joined with Democrats to support HB 1164 on third reading on Tuesday. Cadman does not actually support the measure, and he voted against it on reconsideration.
But he joined with the prevailing vote in order to comply with parliamentary rules to make a motion for reconsideration, which is what brought the bill back up for limited debate on Friday, even after it passed on third reading.
“We’re going to stop this bill in its tracks so that we can work on a few more amendments,” Cadman said after employing the rare strategy.
But the method failed and the bill passed Friday with little debate. It now heads back to the House to consider Senate amendments.
At a legislative workshop hosted by the Colorado Municipal League on Thursday, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said municipalities could expect a “prompt signature” on the measure.
“Around 170 statutory municipalities with April elections are counting on the bill to become law upon the governor’s signature in order to carry out their elections without problems,” said Kevin Bommer, deputy director of CML.
Democrats have been accommodating on several Republican proposals for amendments; including one that requires that polling locations comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But that amendment didn’t pass without its own political theatre.
Democrats first voted against the ADA issue. Then Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, moved his amendment to ensure that polling locations are compliant with ADA laws for disabled military veterans.
Democrats asked that Balmer withdraw his amendment, and then later in the debate came up with their own similar amendment, which passed, but not before receiving a few blistering punches from Balmer.
“Shame on you…” shouted Balmer.
“I was shocked and surprised and disappointed that [the amendment] was just defeated,” he continued. “It is absolutely unconscionable that you would want to keep disabled people in Colorado to not be able to vote in the polling place locations… But I’m going to give you one more chance to do the right thing…”
Most Republican amendments, however, did not pass, including a stunt by Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, to rename the bill, “The Voter Fraud Act Part II,” taking a jab at both the measure this year and HB 1303 from last year.
Republicans oppose HB 1164 because they believe it does not adequately address the problems with HB 1303. They are calling for a full repeal, and have introduced a measure that would stall implementation of HB 1303 for 22 months. But the measure stands little chance in the Democratic-controlled legislature.
Democrats argue that HB 1164 should have bipartisan support since it aims to codify election laws so that local governments can run smooth elections without conflict. It has the support of many county clerks and the Special District Association of Colorado.
Democrats find it odd that Republicans pulled their sponsorship after the issue became another political football. But Roberts defended herself on Friday during reconsideration.
“I just want to be very clear that nobody bullies me, and this is something that I had great concern about that we were putting an awful lot into effect this year again without totally understanding… how this is going to play out,” explained Roberts.
Republicans suggest that the residency standardization could be accomplished in just a few pages of legislation. Yet HB 1164 was written as a 136-page measure, making it even longer than HB 1303, which was also more than 100 pages.
Democrats, however, allege that Republicans are playing games and grandstanding given the approaching general election this year. Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, wonders why more of the Republicans’ concerns weren’t brought up in committee.
“I would only have to suggest that clearly they weren’t that important when we heard this bill in committee last week…” surmised Heath. “Seven days have gone by and all of a sudden they’ve raised themselves to a position that we are basically debating special districts that have gone on for… 50 years.
“All of a sudden in one week they’ve reasoned to this kind of gravity in terms of what we’re going to do…” he added.
Senate President Morgan Carroll of Aurora said the special district issue predated HB 1303, and that HB 1164 is necessary to improve elections in the state.
“It is inaccurate to somehow attribute this to 1303 or same-day registration or mail ballots because this has been an allowed practice since the inception of the Special District Act,” said Carroll.
Ulibarri defended his bill in lengthy closing remarks during third reading, despite the measure clearly passing on a party-line vote.
“The bill was drafted to harmonize our special districts with the law that we passed last year to ensure that there was no confusion over residency requirements…” he said. “That this would actually ensure a more fair and accessible system for all voters.”