Like most Coloradans, I’m proud of the way our state is handling the COVID-19 crisis, and for this Gov. Jared Polis deserves real credit. He rallied the people of our state to flatten the curve of the pandemic, and working together, we did it.
The fight against the virus clearly isn’t over, but we are now in a position to start reopening the economy and get our lives back on track. We thank the governor for his decisive leadership.
But a recently signed executive order, which attempts to unilaterally change state election laws in the name of this health crisis, would take Colorado in the wrong direction – opening our citizen’s initiative process to manipulation, abuse and fraud. It is a massive distraction that undermines our democratic processes and opens voters to the unwanted specter of ballot box chaos this fall.
That’s not the governor’s intent, no doubt, but it is the very real effect. For that reason, Colorado Concern, which represents business leaders from across the state, and Dan Ritchie, Colorado’s leading civic statesman and a member of Colorado Concern’s board of directors, are suing to overturn the overreaching measure. We believe, flatly, that it is unconstitutional.
Before I lay out the reasons behind this lawsuit, I want to be very clear – this is not a partisan lawsuit. The groups opposing this executive order include Democrats, Republicans and those who prefer to not affiliate themselves with either party. We believe that every resident of Colorado is best served by a state government that is held accountable to our constitution and laws, and that the governor’s executive order fails that test.
So, how did we get to this point? Late on the evening of May 15, the governor issued an executive order suspending critical safeguards that apply to the ballot initiative process.
Those safeguards are clearly spelled out in the Colorado Constitution and in state election laws. Among other things, they require licensed petition circulators to physically witness every signature gathered in support of a ballot measure, and then swear an oath in the presence of a notary that all election laws and constitutional requirements were followed in the process.
These safeguards exist for a reason – to ensure that signatures are collected in a transparent and accountable way. Without them, signatures can be forged or dishonestly obtained, potentially allowing an initiative to qualify for the ballot – and possibly become the law of the land – by means of fraud.
The fact is, even with these safeguards, Colorado’s signature process has endured significant abuse in recent years. Massive civil penalties and even criminal convictions have been meted out to signature collectors and signature collection firms working in similar processes for political candidates even with these safeguards in place.
Still, the governor, citing his COVID-19 emergency powers, is, in effect, wiping away these checks and balances. No more witnessing of signatures, no more sworn statements, no more paper trail to hold signature gatherers to account and no more evidence to allow cases of election fraud to be investigated and prosecuted. He says these requirements can’t be reasonably expected amid the pandemic, and so with the stroke of a pen, these critical requirements have been sidelined.
Instead, a completely new system that allows signatures to be submitted electronically by email and through other means is proposed through the executive order. What’s troubling is that, beyond allowing email signatures and waving various legal safeguards, most of the details of this new system are still largely undetermined, just two-and-a-half months before the signature collection process must be completed. It will be up to the secretary of state to build the new system and make it work between now and then.
The good news is, the executive order faces a steep climb in the state courts. Earlier this month, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected a similar effort by a candidate for the U.S. Senate who said signatures were just too difficult to collect during the COVID-19 crisis.
The court unequivocally disagreed, saying: “While we recognize that the circumstances that made signature collection more difficult this year are unprecedented, we do not have the authority to rewrite the Election Code in response to the COVID-19 virus. Only the General Assembly can do that.”
Similarly, only the people of the state of Colorado can make changes to the state’s constitution.
We agree that access to the ballot is critical, but the governor shouldn’t try to unilaterally lower the bar and jettison the very safeguards that preserve public trust in the initiative process. We hope the courts will strike down this order, so that Colorado can get back to work on issues that unite us – fighting this public health crisis and moving our state forward, together, again.
Mike Kopp is president and CEO of Colorado Concern, an alliance of executives with a common interest in enhancing and protecting the state’s business climate.