There are many good things about Colorado’s relatively permissive requirements for citizen-initiated laws. The process allows for a degree of direct democracy that can be both an important and appropriate avenue for citizens to articulate and enshrine the issues important to them into state law. It provides another check on the state’s three branches government, and it meaningfully empowers citizens to actionable civic engagement. There are pragmatic limits to these benefits, however, when it comes to amending the state’s Constitution given the far-reaching ramifications of doing so, combined with the strong incentive to seek a constitutional change rather than to amend Colorado’s statutes. A bipartisan group hopes to impose some balance on the citizen-initiative process by making it more difficult to amend the state Constitution. It is an appropriate effort.
Current law makes no distinction between the requirements to amend Colorado’s seminal document or its dynamic statutes via citizen initiative. Doing either requires a petition signed by electors equal to 5 percent of the number who cast a vote for secretary of state in the last general election. For 2015-2018, that amounts to about 98,500 signatures. Once the secretary of state approves an initiative – either constitutional or statutory – for the ballot, it becomes law with a simple majority of the vote. Repealing constitutional amendments requires the same process in reverse, while the Colorado Legislature can unwind any statutory amendments on its own – thereby undermining voters’ will. As such, the constitutional avenue is the preferred means of bringing a change to state law.
Trouble occurs when the Constitution gets cluttered with conflicting amendments that, once approved, cannot be readily changed. The most notorious example of this is the constitutional and budgetary clash between the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which limits Colorado’s revenue and Amendment 23, which requires increased investment in K-12 education. These and other constitutional prescriptions have made a mess of Colorado’s budget and hamstrung lawmakers’ efforts to fulfill their obligations.
While a comprehensive constitutional cleanup may well be in order, for now a plan to curb the trend of willy-nilly amending is an excellent start. A series of proposed initiatives would raise the threshold for advancing a constitutional amendment. First, in order for petitions to be considered, they would have to contain signatures from 2 percent of the voters in each of the state’s 35 senate districts. This is a critical component that requires those seeking a constitutional change to engage voters throughout the state – rather than relying on the population-heavy I-25 corridor from Fort Collins to Pueblo, as is the current practice because no geographical diversity is necessary of petition signatures.
It is crucial to note that this would not require more signatures. It would only add that they be collected from around the state.
Second, a constitutional amendment would require 55 percent of the vote to pass – a higher and more appropriate threshold for so central and often permanent a change. By raising the bar on constitutional changes, backers of the plan hope to encourage citizens to seek statutory changes rather than race straight to the state’s foundational underpinnings. That should be the preferred route, but must then be respected by lawmakers who have the power – but certainly not the obligation – to fiddle with statutory changes.
Colorado’s Constitution has become somewhat of a jumbled mess, thanks to the relative ease with which it can be amended. To prevent further mayhem, a tougher standard for changing the Constitution is a critical step. Requiring geographical diversity and a higher percentage of voter approval is an effective means of achieving that, while extending meaningful civic engagement opportunities across the state.