Election bill at forefront of Legislature — again

The Colardo Statesman

Lawmakers this week debated a bill that aims to fix problems revealed by a Democratic-backed election law passed last year. But critics say the measure does not go far enough, and that the only solution is to repeal last year’s House Bill 1303.

The House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Commit-tee on Monday backed House Bill 1164 on a 7-3 Democratic party-line vote. The bill then passed the House on Thursday by a vote of 37-25, with Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, joining Democrats in supporting the measure.

The measure takes aim at confusing residency requirements, seeking to standardize the many rules. It had bipartisan sponsorship with Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, and Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder. Sens. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster, and Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, sponsored the bill in the Senate.

But just before the House on Wednesday heard the bill on second reading, Murray surprisingly backed out, suggesting that the measure diminishes local control.

“As a result of testimony I heard in committee on this bill, I really feel that I can’t support the policy side,” Murray explained on the House floor. “I agreed to participate in the bill because as a former county clerk, I understand the administrative challenges of the variety of elections that we need to conduct, but as I got into being responsible for this bill, I realized that there was just no way to avoid the policy reality that we were forcing our jurisdictions in our local governments to reject a requirement for jurisdictional residency.

“I realize that as a legislator, it is not my primary job to be concerned with administration… So, as a legislator, my job is policy oriented, and because I fundamentally disagree with that policy, I have decided to get off the bill.”

HB 1164 would align residency requirements by deleting minimum residency requirements for municipal, special district and school board elections.

Problems around residency requirements arose following the November election resulting in several lawsuits. Broomfield has been in the spotlight after the secretary of state’s office listed alleged elections administration errors, much of which hinged on the residency requirements.

The 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.

Murray had originally said that it was more important to standardize the confusing residency requirements that excluded some voters from local elections.

“I think about my constituents out there who, if we don’t conform the voter registration dates, they… could be permitted under 1303 to vote for president of the United States, but if we left the old law in place, they couldn’t vote for the mayor of their town,” Murray explained on Monday in committee before she backtracked.

“Although I was an adamant opponent to 1303, and I would carry a bill to repeal it, I don’t think it makes sense for my constituents to not be able to vote in one election when they can vote in a general election, which is a partisan election,” she continued.

But the local control issue was enough for Murray to change course. Roberts said she also plans on removing herself as a sponsor, doing away with the bipartisan sponsorship of the legislation.

Hullinghorst said she is disappointed to lose the bipartisan support, but she excused Murray for removing herself from the bill.

“I want to thank Rep. Murray for all of her previous work on this bill,” said the majority leader. “It is unfortunate she has chosen to remove her support from this bill since it includes many of the provisions and solutions we worked together with all stakeholders involved to construct.”

Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, was less understanding, suggesting that Republicans caved to party pressure in an effort to lockdown against Democratic bills.

“I was disappointed to see Rep. Murray buckle to partisan pressure from within and outside her caucus,” he said. “This bill will strengthen voting rights across Colorado.”

Democrats don’t believe that HB 1303 caused the problems. They suggest that the issues already existed, but that they were revealed through the controversial bill last year. But they feel it is important to address those concerns this year.

“It standardizes the new residency requirement of 22 days in the state for both registration and voting for municipalities and special districts who are going to do their own local election…” Hullinghorst said during her presentation of the bill in committee. “That standard has been different for many years… between what the local districts sometimes required… and what the state requirement was.

“So, that’s now all going to be standardized, which I think will help with all the confusion,” she added.

HB 1164 was written with guidance from the Special District Association of Colorado. J. Evan Goulding, a consultant for SDA, said that the bill is necessary to ease confusions and administer elections that won’t be challenged in court.

“If this bill were to not pass, we would be placed in a position of scrambling to make it work,” said Goulding. “But it would be a scramble. It would be difficult.”

Republicans want a repeal

Republicans from Broomfield — where the most significant problems arose — do not believe that there is a fix without repealing HB 1303.

“It may sound like I’m in support of 1164, but I’m not,” Rick Fernandez, chairman of Broomfield Republicans, testified on Monday. “The reason I think 1164 needs to be voted down is it is going to address Band-Aid issues within 1303, and I would prefer 1303 be repealed and we go back to a situation where we knew we had consistencies in the way that our election laws were enforced.”

He pointed out that before 2013, Broomfield had not been involved in any lawsuits regarding election laws. But this year the county is fighting five lawsuits.

The court cases mostly revolve around a measure that banned hydraulic fracturing in Broomfield, though the premise of the cases hinge on election administration, not the merits of the ballot question itself.

“1303 did not improve our elections, it did not improve access to elections, it did not improve the ability for citizens to vote in elections…” said Fernandez.

Another residency requirement conundrum that surfaced following passage of HB 1303 was whether a voter simply needs to show intent to live in a district in order to vote there.

Jon Caldara, president of the libertarian Independence Institute, made a point during the recall election of Senate President John Morse this summer by registering to vote in a district in which he did not reside, though he did not actually vote in the election. He wanted to demonstrate a loophole in HB 1303.

The attorney general’s office investigated the incident and decided that it would not criminally charge Caldara for the stunt.

HB 1164 does not specifically address Caldara’s point, which is another reason critics do not believe that the measure goes far enough.

Marilyn Marks, an outspoken election law activist and chief of the Aspen-based Citizen Center, calls HB 1164 the “Lawless Local Elections Act.” She is concerned that lawmakers have put HB 1164 on the “rocket docket,” speeding it through the legislature without proper input.

One of the biggest concerns with HB 1303 last year was that it was rushed through the legislative process. Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler complained that Democrats and progressive groups wrote the bill in secret without input from his office and then sped it through in the last month of the legislative session.

Marks hopes to avoid that this session. She calls HB 1164 the “son of 1303,” pointing to the possibility of consequences, including decriminalizing voter fraud; abolishing all residency requirements for most local elections; diminishing state election rules and oversight by the secretary of state’s office; and insulating counties from legal challenges brought by the November election.

Marks believes that a better approach would be to delay implementation of HB 1303. Republican Sens. Kevin Grantham of Cañon City and Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud are planning to introduce a bill in the coming days that would delay implementation of HB 1303 for 22 months.

“Lawmakers should reject the ‘Lawless Local Elections’ bill and opt for the solution that the vast majority of voters would demand,” said Marks. “Stop the chaos and conduct elections under the long-existing understandable law until we can sort out the pieces of the ‘modernization’ bill of last year.”

Republicans have suggested other proposals as well, though Democrats have already shot them down.

Senate Bill 71, sponsored by Lundberg, would have allowed electors to opt out of mail voting. And Senate Bill 79, sponsored by Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, would have expanded the abilities for individuals to challenge a mail ballot.

Another Republican measure that is awaiting its first hearing would eliminate certain less-secure forms of identification in order to cut back on voter fraud.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com