Gov. Hickenlooper should veto this flawed election reform bill
When I learned the Colorado Legislature had passed a bill “to protect voting privacy while also ensuring transparency in the process,” I was taken aback. I thought the Constitution did that.
Though silent on the topic of ballot privacy, the U. S. Constitution is usually interpreted as requiring that ballots be secret.
Americans have been protected by secret ballots from coercion, intimidation or retaliation for their election choices since the founding of the American nation.
The Carter Center, internationally famous for its work to ensure free and fair elections in emerging democracies, makes the secret ballot the foundational requirement for a democratic vote.
In addition, the Carter standards require that elections be conducted by “impartial officials” to ensure confidence in the integrity of the vote, and that the election be transparent to voters, the press and media and organizations that certify the integrity of the election.
The Colorado Constitution makes the requirement for a secret ballot explicit. “All elections by the people shall be by secret ballot, and in case paper ballots are required, no ballots shall be marked in any way whereby the ballot can be identified as the ballot of the person casting it.” The section authorizes the use of voting machines, “provided that secrecy in voting is preserved.”
Unfortunately, Colorado elections fail to meet either international standards, or those of the state Constitution. Signing House Bill 1036 into law would remove any incentive for changing present practices.
County clerks in several counties have acknowledged and even demonstrated that they can, in certain circumstances, link a specific ballot to a particular voter. As Grand Junction resident Bill Hugenberg explained in a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper, “Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Sheila Reiner proved to a group of local citizens that — in certain situations — individually identifiable voters could be definitively linked to their ballots using a series of reports ... generated at the time of signature verification.”
Conducted under the supervision of an elected secretary of state by a cadre of elected county clerks — almost all from the same party as the current secretary of state — Colorado fails entirely the requirement for election supervision by “impartial officials.”
The blackout period required by HB 1036 when the Colorado Open Records Act does not apply circumvents the transparency essential to protect the integrity of elections.
Given the explicit requirements of the Colorado Constitution, it seems strange that legislators of both parties would side with the county clerks — the only major group supporting HB 1036 — rather than attempt to protect the rights of Coloradans to a secret ballot.
The measure passed the Senate (as Senate Bill 155) unanimously with little debate, while a separate bill to restrict access to records of public officials (House Bill 1036) was set to pass on its own. The ballot provisions of SB 155 were grafted on to HB 1036 in the waning days of the regular session, and were passed by both houses of the Legislature on the final day of the regular session.
The most controversial provision of the bill creates blackout periods after an election when access to voted ballots is restricted to county clerks, election officials and “interested parties.” The “interested parties” may include not only candidates, but “political parties and even representatives of issue committees that gave money to ballot measures,” according to critics challenging the law.
A coalition of high-profile individuals and organizations appealed to Hickenlooper to veto the bill. Among other faults, they charge that the “restriction of CORA rights during an election to political parties and candidates creates — for the first time — a favored class of citizens” with civil rights surpassing those of others.
Former Colorado Speaker of the House Terrence Carroll joined the Colorado Lawyers Committee Election Task Force, Colorado Union of Taxpayers, Colorado Common Cause, Colorado Ethics Watch and the ACLU of Colorado in signing the letter to the governor, according to the Colorado Independent.
Newspapers throughout the state have published editorials urging the governor to veto HB 1036. Organizations and individuals also have sent the governor messages opposing the bill.
Hickenlooper should veto this ill-conceived legislation and consider appointing an independent commission to recommend legislation assuring Colorado elections meet the highest standards for ballot secrecy, open records and impartiality.