DENVER — A hotly contested Democratic bill to change the rules on recall elections is moving toward the governor’s desk just eight months after two Democrats were ousted in last year’s historic recall election.
Senate Bill 158, which would change the constitutional definition of “election day” for purposes of recall elections, was approved Thursday by Senate Democrats over the objections of Republicans who insisted that it violated the state constitution.
The bill now goes to the House where Democrats hold a comfortable majority, meaning that it’s highly likely the bill will wind up awaiting the signature of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
State Sen. Scott Renfroe (R-Greeley) said during Thursday’s floor debate that the bill would be “an opportunity for the governor to use that veto pen that he’s talked about a little bit.”
“This is a bad bill trying to redefine our elections,” said Renfroe. “We should ask ourselves why. What is the real motive of this bill? Why are we doing this?”
By defining “election day” as the first day of early voting, the bill would give county clerks enough time to conduct recall elections by mail. The first-in-state-history Sept. 10 legislative recalls were conducted as walk-in elections after a judge ruled that candidates must have until 15 days before the recall to petition onto the ballot, as required by the constitution.
Former state Sen. Angela Giron (D-Pueblo), who lost her recall fight, said afterward the lack of mail-in ballots constituted “voter suppression,” a point raised Thursday by the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Pat Steadman (D-Denver).
“When their votes are suppressed or discouraged or made inconvenient, the values that we hold dear are not championed,” said Steadman. “This is all about making our election process work smoothly for the clerks and the election officials that must administer the election, and making it convenient and accessible and possible for our citizens to vote in our elections.”
Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman countered by noting that while “mail ballots have certainly been growing in the use and popularity” for the past 15 years, “that doesn’t mean people have been disenfranchised for the last couple hundred years” before mail-in voting.
“Just because the constitution might be an inconvenient truth, it’s still the truth,” said Cadman. “And changing that through a statute is not allowed. It’s not allowed . . . [W]e’re not allowed to distort it. We’re not allowed to pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Republicans said that the only way to enact such a change would be to amend the constitution, which would need the approval of Colorado voters.
Steadman insisted the measure would simply redefine the term “election day,” which can be done by the state legislature.
“We are defining the term ‘the date for the holding the election,’ because no definition exists for that term in the constitution right now, and it is the prerogative of the General Assembly to define the words that are used in the constitution,” said Steadman.
Democrats argued that the bill was needed to increase voter participation in recall elections. Last year’s Colorado Springs recall saw 21 percent voter participation while the Pueblo recall had 36 percent.
State Sen. Matt Jones (D-Longmont) called the turnout “horrible,” while Republicans said those figures are about average for special elections.
A District Court judge ruled in August against the Secretary of State’s efforts to give clerks more time to mail out ballots, saying the constitution was clear on the timeline.
Jones described the atmosphere surrounding last year’s recalls as one of “chaos,” but state Sen. Ted Harvey (R-Highlands Ranch) said that wasn’t the fault of the constitution. He blamed it on the Democrats’ sweeping elections overhaul, H.B. 1303, which was passed last year shortly before the recall drives.
“Why were the elections chaos? Were the elections chaos because the constitution put in place a scenario that could not be met?” said Harvey. “Or was it statute that had been in place for 10 months that caused the chaos?”