DENVER, CO – In this presidential election year, it’s not surprising that at least eight bills have been floating through the state Legislature to reform voting laws. One of them, Senate Bill 147, which would have made it a felony to communicate false information with the intent of keeping a person from voting, was killed yesterday in a House Committee.
“Blood has been shed and lives have been lost to protect this right more than any other,” declared Rep. Angela Williams, who with Sen. Irene Aguilar, both Denver Democrats, sponsored SB 147.
“Dishonesty and trickery are barriers to every American’s right to vote,” said Williams.
Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, said the organization had received numerous complaints of voter intimidation and misinformation, but none were reported in 2010.
“Fortunately, Colorado has been lucky and we’ve had relatively few instances of deceptive practices. But,” Nunez warned, “that as a swing state (in the presidential election) in 2012, we can’t just think that this will always be the case.”
The bill stated that anyone, who intentionally conveyed false information about election procedures or voter eligibility in order to keep a person from voting, would be charged with a class 5 felony. In addition the attorney general would be required to report complaints of alleged offenses at the end of each two-year election cycle to the legislature.
The only two cases cited inColoradooccurred in 2008. Democrat-affiliated senior voters in Pueblo Countycomplained that they received robocalls that gave misinformation about polling places and times to vote prior to the November 2008 election. The source of the calls has never been determined.
Also in 2008, the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink informed Colorado College that a student, whose legal residency is out of state and is a dependent of parents, may not want to register to vote in Colorado Springs.
Balink said an election attorney had advised that if the students registered to vote in the city, their parents residing in another state may not be able to claim their son or daughter as a dependent on their income tax statement or cover them on health and auto insurance plans. If a college student chose to register to vote in Colorado, it would be with the intent of being a permanent resident, such as having a Coloradodriver’s license.
“Students who qualify on residency standards under applicable registration law, including those whose out-of-state parents claim them as dependents, are eligible and encouraged to register to vote in El Paso County,” clarified Balink a month before the 2008 presidential election.
Deputy Attorney General Michael Dougherty said that though he agrees with the concerns for honesty and access to voting, he opposes the bill for three reasons.
“The statute to address this conduct is already on the books,” said Dougherty, referring to Article 13 of the Colorado Revised Statutes that reads:
“No person shall knowingly make, publish, broadcast, or circulate or cause to be made, published, broadcasted, or circulated in any letter, circular, advertisement, or poster or in any other communication any false statement designed to affect the vote on any issue submitted to the electors at any election or relating to any candidate for election to public office.
“Any person who violates any provision of paragraph (a) of this subsection (1) commits a class 1 misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished as provided in section 18-1.3-501, C.R.S.
“No person shall recklessly make, publish, broadcast, or circulate or cause to be made, published, broadcasted, or circulated in any letter, circular, advertisement, or poster or in any other communication any false statement designed to affect the vote on any issue submitted to the electors at any election or relating to any candidate for election to public office. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, for purposes of this subsection (2), a person acts “recklessly” when he or she acts in conscious disregard of the truth or falsity of the statement made, published, broadcasted, or circulated.”
Dougherty said the Attorney General’s office also opposed the bill because criminalizing free speech wades into very dangerous territory in undermining First Amendment rights. He also objected to the bill’s requirement to report alleged complaints to the legislative body and public because those allegations may later be proven to be unfounded and false.
“It’s clearly, currently a crime to knowingly misrepresent the date and time of an election,” said Rep. Daniel Kagan (D-Greenwood Village).
Kagan said the current law is comprehensive and an adequate deterrent if more people were aware of it and that they can be prosecuted for intentionally lying to voters to manipulate an election.
Rep. Su Ryden (D-Aurora), said she was a little concerned about the felony charge, but thought it was a good deterrent and justified.
“I have problems with creating a felony crime. In this case, I don’t think we’re talking about a crime of passion,” declared Ryden. “This is about trying to take somebody’s right to vote.”
“No one deplores more than I do the disenfranchisement of citizens who have the right to vote. The idea of voter intimidation is a greater threat to freedom and democracy than almost anything,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs).
“But, this (bill) is not just about voter intimidation,” said Gardner. “This bill chills free speech.”
The bill failed on a 6-4 vote, defeated by Republican committee members and Democrat Kagan.
SB 147 is the third defeated election-related bill in this session, joining HB 1024 regarding ballot titles and HB 1298 to allow voter pre-registration for 16 year olds.