DENVER – In January, when Mesa County residents heard that state lawmakers had introduced a bill that would fundamentally change presidential voting in Colorado, they started grabbing County Commissioner Rose Pugliese on the street. She had to stop it, they told her.
The National Popular Vote bill, which Gov. Jared Polis signed into law March 15, would grant all of Colorado’s presidential votes to the winner of the popular vote, part of a nationwide movement to ensure that future presidents cannot be elected based on the Electoral College. Although the bill would go into effect only if enough states sign on, the bill still passed easily through the House and Senate, despite objections from rural Colorado.
For months, Colorado Democrats’ control of the governor’s office, the House and Senate have generated a flurry of initiatives and bills that have frustrated rural conservative voters. But the National Popular Vote bill has risen to the top of local concerns, Pugliese said.
“What I think the difference is on this one is you impact people’s votes,” she said. “Especially in rural areas this hits home even more. Now our voices aren’t going to be heard at all.”
Pugliese is leading an effort to put the national popular vote question on the 2020 November ballot for voters to decide. The effort is a referendum, the first in Colorado since the 1930s, which puts a hold on the law until 124,000 petition signatures are gathered to put the issue on the ballot.
Two weeks after Polis signed the bill, Pugliese helped organize the first petition signing in Grand Junction, where she was stunned to see long lines of people waiting to add their names to the list.
“I realized early on I was going to run out of petitions,” Pugliese said. “People have been coming out in droves.”
As of the first week of April, Pugliese had almost 1,500 volunteers circulating enough petitions to get 100,000 signatures and is confident the referendum will get 200,000 signatures by the state’s August deadline. She now routinely runs out of petitions at signing events and has to turn people away.
The waves of eager petition signers echo the concerns of Durango’s Rep. Barbara McLachlan, one of the few Democrats who voted against the measure. In February, McLachlan said her vote against the bill was one of her most carefully considered of the session. She added that her constituents had never raised the issue.
“It was a very difficult one for me to say, ‘Let’s do it,’ when we don’t have to do it right now,” she said.
Southwest Colorado lawmakers Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, also voted against the bill. None of Southwest Colorado’s lawmakers are facing recall petitions.
In addition to the National Popular Vote bill, lawmakers have pushed a controversial and sweeping overhaul of the state’s oil and regulations amid the protests of energy workers. Last week, lawmakers approved and sent Polis a “red flag” gun bill, which would allow law enforcement to seize firearms from people who pose a threat to others or themselves. Some counties, including Montezuma, have pledged to not enforce it. Voting on a bill that would create a mandatory family leave program was postponed in the face of objections from small-business owners around the state.
In response, rural and conservative areas of Colorado have cried for the recall elections of Polis, at least five Democrat lawmakers and one Front Range sheriff, Tony Spurlock, who backed the red flag bill. Meanwhile, lobbyists and grass-roots groups are raising money for recall campaigns.
Conservative lobbyist Joe Neville, the brother of House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, is using a fundraising committee, Values First Colorado, to back “Recall Colorado,” a website to collect donations for the various recall efforts. Colorado Secretary of State records show that six recall efforts have their own funding campaigns, one of which is dedicated to a catch-all recall of “any legislator or statewide elected official who refuses to stand up for freedom and liberty in Colorado.” Another campaign, the Official Recall Election Committee, will focus on raising funds to consider a replacement to Polis, pending his recall.
As of April 5, the Colorado Secretary of State has approved only one recall petition -- for Greeley Democrat Rep. Rochelle Galindo. If approved, some petitions face daunting odds – the petition to recall Polis, for instance, must gather 631,000 signatures in 60 days to get on the ballot, and those signatures cannot be collected until July.
When asked about the recall effort during a late-March news conference, Polis seemed unfazed and determined to forge ahead with an agenda focusing on affordable health care and full-day kindergarten.
“While I did win with historic margins, 42 percent of people in the state didn’t vote for me,” he said.
Nonetheless, recall elections are not idle threats in Colorado. In 2013, then-Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Sen. Angela Giron on Pueblo, both Democrats, were recalled after legislators passed a package of gun control bills, one of which limited magazine sizes. Durango’s then-Rep. Michael McLachlan, the husband of Barbara, was also the target of a recall petition that ultimately failed to gather enough signatures.
But to date, the repeal of the National Popular Vote bill remains the state’s most viable effort. The movement, dubbed Coloradans Vote, has at least 15 locations where voters can sign petitions this spring, according to the group’s website.