Challenges filed on petition rulings in primary races

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Six candidates successfully petitioned onto the August primary ballot, and seven fell short, according to rulings issued last Friday by the Colorado Department of State. But two of those rulings were almost immediately hit by legal challenges.

One lawsuit filed this week in Denver District Court charges Secretary of State Bernie Buescher with throwing out too many of the signatures submitted by House District 4 candidate Jennifer Coken, a Democrat, who contends her name should appear on the primary ballot for the legislative seat in Denver. The other, filed by a Grand Junction conservative activist, asks a judge to keep Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jane Norton off the ballot, claiming her signature gatherers didn’t meet legal requirements.

Buescher’s office said the following candidates made the ballot: Norton; Steve Barton, a Republican running in the 1st Congressional District; Walker Stapleton, a Republican candidate for state treasurer; state Rep. Joel Judd, a Democrat running in Senate District 34; Amber Tafoya, a Democrat seeking the House District 4 nod; Mark Mehringer, a Democrat in House District 7; and David Casiano, a Republican in House District 44.

Candidates whose signatures didn’t add up included Coken; Joe Gschwendtner, Republican gubernatorial hopeful; Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, seeking a berth in the Senate District 16 Republican primary; Renee Blanchard, a Democrat running in Senate District 33; Blake Harrison, a Democrat after the House District 7 nomination; and Raymond Eugene Keyawa, a Republican who wanted to run in House District 59.

Statewide candidates needed 10,500 signatures from members of their own party — 1,500 from each of the state’s seven congressional district — and congressional candidates had to come up with 1,000 signatures. The signature requirement for legislative candidates is 30 percent of the votes cast in the same primary race in the last election or 1,000, whichever is less.

State law sets a five-day challenge period after the secretary of state’s office certifies petitions. But there’s a brief window for a judge to decide whether to reverse Buescher’s verdict, as county clerks across the state are waiting for a go-ahead to order ballots printed for the August 10 primary.

Since the majority of Colorado counties are conducting mail-only primary elections this year, judges have even less time to consider complaints because mail ballots must be in clerks’ hands by July 9. The first day ballots can go into the mail is July 19.

“After reviewing all the signatures that were thrown out, we decided we had a legitimate challenge,” said Lynea Hansen, spokeswoman for Coken, a House District 4 Democrat. At issue, in part, is an obscure corner of state law that determines how signatures are counted when a voter signs more than one petition for the same office.

Coken’s campaign had the chance last Friday to examine the secretary of state’s decisions on individual signatures. Out of roughly 1,400 signatures submitted — with 849 required to make the ballot — the secretary of state found only 749 were valid.

Hansen said the campaign was challenging the secretary of state’s rejection of 111 signatures — 17 because House District 4 rival Tafoya had the same names on her petitions but turned them in earlier, and 94 because the Coken campaign contends the secretary of state simply made mistakes in its review.

“Most of the signatures they threw out for various reasons but they were wrong to throw them out,” Hansen said. “Sometimes they said, ‘We can’t find the voter in the voter file,’ but we found them just fine — any of those random little things they just made an error on.”

The Coken campaign said it was concerned the secretary of state’s office was “overwhelmed” by the large number of signatures submitted this year and “made a substantial number of errors regarding validation of signatures.”

But even if a judge agrees the secretary of state’s office goofed 94 times, Coken still can’t make the ballot without an unprecedented ruling in her favor on a legal requirement that forbids a voter from signing more than one petition for the same office.

Tafoya submitted her petitions nearly a week before Coken turned in hers, allowing names that appear on both petitions to count toward Tafoya’s total but not toward Coken’s. That’s according to a secretary of state rule on duplicate signatures, which says it doesn’t matter whose petition was signed first, just whose gets filed first.

“If we turned in the same signature, they threw ours out, even if (the voter) signed our petition first,” Hansen said. She said the campaign had found 17 cases where voters signed Coken’s sheet before also signing Tafoya’s.

When voters sign a candidate petition, they are attesting they’ll vote for that candidate in the primary election — and since a voter can only cast a single vote, the law only allows a single nominating signature to count.

But the question raised by the Coken campaign — whether affixing a signature sets the voter’s intention in motion, or whether that relies on which campaign finishes its petition drive first — is uncharted legal territory in Colorado.

“This question has never been ruled on in (state) court before,” Hansen said, according to the campaign’s legal counsel. She noted that lawyers cite conflicting provisions in state law that point both directions on the question.

“Jennifer believes she belongs on the ballot and believes the voters have spoken, so we’re asking the court to reinstate her on the ballot,” Hansen said. The campaign has asked the court to rule immediately.

Democrat Dan Pabon is also on the House District 4 primary ballot. Delegates nominated him at the district assembly in April.

Litigation filed Monday challenges a secretary of state ruling from the other direction. Grand Junction Republican and sometimes candidate Tom Bjorklund asks the court to invalidate Norton’s petition, claiming the signatures were gathered illegally. The lawsuit — which repeatedly misspells Buescher’s name “Beuscher” and appears to include several typos — claims Norton’s notaries acted improperly, her signature gatherers didn’t meet legal residency, voter registration and citizenship requirements, and some signatures shouldn’t have passed review.

Reached by phone, the attorney who filed the lawsuit told The Colorado Statesman he didn’t want to talk about it.

“I’m not in a position to comment on that at this point in time,” said Greenwood Village-based attorney Adam Kehrli, who represents Bjorklund in the case.

Bjorklund tried to make the Mesa County Republican primary ballot for county treasurer in April but fell four votes short at the county assembly. His wife, Shari, lost an election in House District 55 to Buescher in 2004.

A Norton spokeswoman dismissed the lawsuit Wednesday afternoon even though she said she had only just learned of its existence in a phone call from The Statesman.

“We had a tremendous signature gathering effort. We turned in well over 30,000 signatures, which is triple what is required,” Cinamon Watson said. “And we’re confident we followed the letter of the law gathering those signatures.”

Norton turned in roughly 34,000 signatures and the secretary of state’s office said 20,133 were OK — roughly twice the total 10,500 needed to make the ballot. Norton’s campaign said about two-thirds of her signatures were harvested by paid petition gatherers and the rest resulted from campaign volunteers.

“We tell the counties these are the candidates who are being challenged,” secretary of state spokesman Rich Coolidge said. “The counties will hold off as long as they can, but obviously, at some point, they have to go to print to get the mail ballots out.”

He declined to comment specifically on the two lawsuits other than to say it will be up to a judge to decide. And that could happen quickly. “We have all the evidence ready to go,” he said.

“As of right now, pending the judge’s decision,” Coolidge said, “Jennifer Coken will not appear on those ballots in Denver. On the flip side, as far as Jane Norton, she’ll remain on the ballot unless a judge tells us otherwise.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com