Unaffiliated voters may lose anonymity under Colorado bill
DENVER — Unaffiliated voters won’t have the anonymity they might have expected if they decide to vote in the next primary election under a bill racing through the Colorado Legislature this week.
Senate Bill 305, which cleared the Colorado Senate and the House Finance Committee on Monday, is designed to put in statute what voters approved last fall: two ballot measures that called for open presidential primaries and for unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in regular primaries.
But the way the bill is written now, unaffiliated voters who cast ballots in primaries would become publicly known because it calls for their votes to be recorded permanently in the Statewide Voter Registration System.
That system tracks registered voters and whether they cast a ballot in any election.
Opponents of that provision argue that it flies in the face of the voters’ intent. But they can’t do anything about it because the bill is being carried by state lawmakers who don’t like the idea of unaffiliated voters casting ballots in their parties’ elections.
“Given that this is happening in the last minute of the legislative session, we’re not happy with the process that this bill has followed,” said Jason Bertolacci, spokesman for Let Colorado Vote, the campaign that got Propositions 107 and 108 passed last November. “It’s fair to say that the parties like affiliation, and so they are fighting hard to make sure that their interests were protected here.”
Sponsors of the bill — Sens. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, and Stephen Fenberg, D-Boulder, and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, and Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette — say it’s necessary for the county clerks who run the elections to record ballots that have been cast.
Neville and Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert said that’s the way it is, and unaffiliated voters are just going to have to live with it.
“Voters don’t like their information public — their addresses are public, their affiliation is public, the fact that their vote history is public — some voters don’t like that, and they complain about that,” Staiert said. “There may be some overlap with unaffiliateds who say, ‘And this on top of everything else.’ But do I think there’s this group of voters out there who’s aware that all this information is public but this one thing wasn’t going to be? I don’t think so.”
Sponsors of the bill did take out one piece that would have required voter registrations to include a box for unaffiliated voters who wanted to state a preference for which party’s primary they would most likely vote in. That provision would have called on the clerks to register those unaffiliated voters who make that preference publicly known regardless of whether they actually ended up voting.
That’s now out, but unaffiliated voters still can ask for a preference. If they do, they would only receive that party’s ballot in future primary elections until they end or change their preference.
Under the bill, unaffiliated voters who don’t declare a preference would get two ballots — or three or more if there are other contested primaries — with explicit instructions to return only one ballot. If they return more than one, all of their ballots would be negated.
Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said while he didn’t much care for the two primary ballot measures, he liked that change.
“I think it is very important that we honor the will of the majority of the people who voted,” Holbert said. “I still view the two major parties as private organizations and am frustrated that those private organizations will now have a more open and inclusive process to select the candidates who run to represent the people. The reality is that those two ballot questions passed last year.”
Neville said even though it will become known which party’s primary unaffiliated voters cast a ballot in, who they voted for on those ballots will remain secret, just as all ballots are.
But Amber McReynolds, director of elections for the Denver Election Division, said that won’t be good enough for some unaffiliated voters because others will know which party they voted in. That’s why the Denver clerk’s office remains opposed to the bill even though the Colorado County Clerk’s Association has become neutral on it.
“We have a disagreement that unaffiliateds should have to disclose publicly which primary they voted because we don’t see that was what the propositions said,” McReynolds said. “Unaffiliated voters have chosen to be unaffiliated for a reason.”
Mesa County Clerk Sheila Reiner said she, too, has a problem with that part of the bill. Still, she said other changes make it more palatable, such as providing funding for the elections, and requiring all county clerks to follow the same rules.
She said that will become important to help keep down the rejection rate from voters who might become confused when they receive two ballots in the mail.
“I don’t like everything about the bill, and that for sure is one part that I do not like,” Reiner said. “But I do like the cost help for the county budget, I do like standardization.”
Still, Reiner, Bertolacci and McReynolds said there is much work to do on fixing that last part, and that is a battle they plan to continue to have.
The bill requires two more votes on the House floor, which need to occur by Wednesday when the Legislature is required by law to adjourn.