By all official accounts, Colorado’s 2020 elections went smoothly, were secure and saw a record number of votes cast, but the lingering national conversations around voting security and access are still playing out in statehouses across the U.S. — Colorado included.
Republican lawmakers in Colorado are still not convinced that the elections are secure enough, and have introduced five election-related bills so far this session. Democrats call the proposals little more than voter suppression tactics or an appeal to the Republican base, and are offering up their own proposals to expand voting access and implement ranked-choice voting.
With Democrats in control of both chambers in Colorado, the GOP bills face an uphill battle. And county clerks, who by and large are in charge of running elections, say discussion on the process is healthy, but potential changes should be spurred by need, not politics.
“My perspective is you can’t drive your car looking in the rearview mirror,” said Republican Sen. Paul Lundeen of Monument. “Colorado has a good election law. We need to make it a great election law.”
In the wake of former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud, more than 165 bills to add voting restrictions have been introduced in statehouses across the country as of early February — four times the number introduced at the same time last year. And Democrats have introduced more than 406 bills in 35 states to expand voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
One of the main Republican bills in Colorado would require voters to show proof of citizenship to cast a ballot — a proposal somewhat similar to one Kansas passed and was later deemed unconstitutional by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, though Kansas required documentation when registering.
Newly elected GOP Rep. Stephanie Luck of Penrose is sponsoring this bill, which would mandate that voters provide their county clerks with citizenship documentation before they can vote by mail. Those who don’t provide documentation ahead of time would have to get provisional ballots and have to show IDs to their county clerk and recorder’s office before they can cast their ballots.
Luck dismisses arguments that it’s a voter suppression tactic, saying the bill complies with Amendment 76, passed by voters in November, which reiterates only citizens can vote — which is already the law — and restricts local governments from allowing noncitizens to vote.
“Those questions are all related to should this exist, and the people have already spoken,” Luck said.
Republicans are also looking to allow any person to request a recount, audit voter rolls, repeal automatic mail ballots — one of Colorado’s hallmarks of ease of voting — and change the process for voters with a disability who sign a ballot with an “X.”
Lundeen is sponsoring the election validity bill, which would repeal automatic mail ballots and not count ballots received after Election Day (such as absentee ballots from overseas). He recognizes that it could have many revisions, saying, sometimes, “you have to be clever to get a conversation started.”
“Good should never be the enemy of great, and I think we’ve got people that have settled into this spot where they were pretty doggone good — a lot of people look to Colorado,” he said. “I agree, a lot of people do. Does that mean we should be resting on our laurels? No.”
ACLU Colorado Public Policy Director Denise Maes said the GOP bill sponsors are playing to a base that “wants to pretend that our election was somehow fraudulent.”
“And it wasn’t,” she said. “And secondly, some of these proposed (bills) take us back … to the old days, and we want to make access easier, not more complicated.”
Republican Dave Williams of Colorado Springs, who is sponsoring the recount bill, said his party is looking to improve an imperfect system. He added: “I want to look under the hood. I want to see if we can get a handle on any fraud that’s going on.”
According to the latest data available, which was before the 2020 election, Colorado had a double voting rate with mail ballots of .00006% and a mere .0027% of ballots were referred for further investigation for potential fraud. It’s why Secretary of State Jena Griswold, whose office oversees the state’s elections, believes the GOP bills are attempts to curtail voting access and undermine confidence in the system.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, said conversations can happen around improving elections, but some of the bills introduced seem politicized and are more about scoring political points than bettering the system.
Fenberg said bills like Lundeen’s likely won’t pass, calling many of the GOP proposals part of the “big lie,” which leads people not to trust their government, think their votes don’t matter and ultimately culminated in the Jan. 6 violence at the U.S. Capitol.
Disinformation has played a role in the last two presidential elections, and it’s something Griswold, a Democrat, wants to get rid of as much as possible. She’s established a unit in her office to combat foreign disinformation and is looking to replicate bills other states have introduced.
One proposal would prohibit campaigns from colluding with foreign actors and could also target deep fakes.
“We saw a huge amount of foreign disinformation really beginning in 2016 and … again last year,” Griswold said.
She’s also looking at asking lawmakers to sponsor a bill that would put a stop to foreign influence in corporate election spending by redefining what constitutes a foreign corporation. It could affect a small percentage of corporate spending on super PACs — Griswold estimates about 12%, though that number could change.
“We should always try to make our election system better, but we added so much access last year that I think we are in a really good slot,” Griswold said. “And I think that the proof is just in the outcome we had.”
Already, statehouse Democrats have introduced three bills related to voting to ensure multilingual ballot access, implement ranked-choice voting in cities and counties if they desire and ban county-level gerrymandering.
“I’m really excited about any policies that we can pass to ensure that every Coloradan has access to the ballot and has the ability to vote, making sure that they’re eligible, making sure that they are able to access this cherished right,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver, one of the bill’s sponsors.
Democratic Rep. Chris Kennedy of Lakewood is looking to keep bigger counties from gerrymandering commissioner districts by using provisions from two amendments passed in 2018.
“Don’t break it if it’s not broken”
Larimer County Clerk and Recorder Angela Myers, a Republican, so far doesn’t see the need for the Republican or Democratic proposals (though she did not weigh in on the gerrymandering bill).
“Let’s don’t break it if it’s not broken,” she said, acknowledging discussion and questions about the election system are healthy.
Myers said she stays vigilant for any potential issues of fraud and would want lawmakers to address issues if there were some, but she sees a lot more cases of voter confusion than fraud.
She also said she thinks the national conversation about mail ballots in 2020 was more about other states that quickly implemented a new voting process — like Missouri — not Colorado’s, which has been in place for years.
Former Arapahoe County Clerk and Colorado County Clerks Association Executive Director Matt Crane, also a Republican, said lawmakers need to reach out to clerks and recorders before introducing legislation to understand how things really work and “not listen to people that are peddling disinformation about what didn’t happen, what never happened.”
Colorado county officials work to address any voting concerns that do pop up, Crane stressed, and make sure that when people come to vote, they feel confident they’ll have access and there is integrity in the vote-counting process. That doesn’t mean he thinks no changes should be made — county clerks have made technical suggestions.
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