State records: School candidates failed to file necessary paperwork
Candidates running for school board this fall in at least four western Colorado school districts violated state election law by not filing a certain affidavit with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, an error that stems from murky laws and rarely has consequences, according to state officials.
All five school board candidates in the Plateau Valley School District, two of three candidates in the Delta County School District and four of five candidates in the De Beque School District did not have affidavits filed in the secretary of state’s campaign finance database, TRACER, as of Wednesday.
The required affidavit states only that the candidate is “familiar” with Colorado election law. It also serves to get the candidate into the secretary of state’s system.
School District 51 board President John Williams, who is unopposed in his re-election bid, did not have such an affidavit on file with the secretary of state on Tuesday morning. After being contacted by the Sentinel, Williams filed a candidate affidavit Tuesday afternoon.
Ben Schler, legal and internal operations manager in the elections division of the Secretary of State’s Office, said Williams violated campaign finance law by not filing within 10 days of declaring his candidacy.
But it’s “a tricky area of law and it’s not all that clear,” Schler said.
Colorado campaign finance law defines a candidate as someone who publicly declares their candidacy and accepts money or spends money on their campaign.
After becoming a candidate, a person must file with the Secretary of State’s Office within 10 days.
If someone does not spend money on a campaign, they might not be considered a candidate in the eyes of the law, Schler said — but that would be a very limited circumstance.
“I guess technically if someone didn’t meet that prong, they wouldn’t be required to file,” Schler said. “For anybody who says they’re not making some kind of expenditure in furtherance of their candidacy, you really have to walk a fine line with that, even if it’s paying for gas to drive yourself to the polling place to cast a vote for yourself.”
Because he is unopposed, Williams said he will not accept any campaign contributions and will return any money that is donated to his campaign.
“I’m sorry this is an issue, and my first emotion is that I just don’t want to embarrass anybody,” Williams said. “The nature of this is sort of like a clerical error, and I signed an identical candidate affidavit in 2013, which basically says I’m aware of and know about the Colorado Constitution and the Fair Campaign Practices Act.”
Though candidate affidavits and campaign finance disclosures are required by law, they’re not enforced by the secretary of state in local elections, Schler said. Only a designated election official or a court can take action against a candidate in a local election who doesn’t comply with campaign finance laws.
Election officials must let candidates know in writing that they’re required to file with the state within five days. After that, candidates can be removed from the ballot by the election official.
Citizens can also file complaints in court, though Schler said he has never seen a complaint about candidate affidavits go to an administrative law judge.
TJ Gately, school board member in Plateau Valley School District and the district’s designated election official, said he did not know whether the district’s five school board candidates plan to file candidate affidavits or financial disclosures with the secretary of state.
Terri Wells, secretary to the District 51 Board of Education and the district’s designated election official, said she checks candidates’ state filings on Oct. 17, which is the first deadline for candidates to submit financial disclosures.
When it comes to local elections, Schler said, if an election official doesn’t take action and there’s no citizen complaint, candidates can run, win an election and hold office without ever complying with campaign finance laws.
“I don’t think it’s something that happens on a regular basis but it is technically possible,” Schler said. “(The law) is an interesting constitutional provision and one I think the secretary wouldn’t mind having a little more leeway to clarify, but it’s constitutional, so we do what’s there.”