A unanimous Colorado Supreme Court ruling Wednesday dealt a roadblock to state ballot initiative efforts including one that would require a setback of at least 2,500 feet between oil and gas wells and homes, bringing an abrupt end to that latter campaign.
The court ruled 7-0 to strike down an effort by Gov. Jared Polis to allow for signatures for ballot initiatives to be gathered by mail or email due to safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state “Constitution requires that ballot initiative petitions be signed in the presence of the petition circulator. That requirement cannot be suspended by executive order, even during a pandemic,” the court ruled.
The expedited ruling, which reversed a district court ruling, came less than a week after backers of the drilling setback measure launched an email-based signature-gathering effort to get the measure on the November ballot.
The group said late Wednesday afternoon in a news release that the ruling “leaves no safe and healthy path to collect signatures and access the ballot while our state continues to battle the threat of COVID-19.”
Anne Lee Foster, a spokeswoman for the group, said in the release, “This is a setback for the people of Colorado, our right to petition our government, and the democratic process that should ensure safe and equal access to the ballot for all citizens regardless of their means or the external threat of a pandemic.”
She added, “We cannot put any supporters at risk … by asking them to sign the petition or gather signatures face-to-face at a time when social distancing is vital to saving lives in Colorado. It is with great disappointment that we are therefore suspending our signature-gathering efforts.”
Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, predicted earlier Wednesday that the ruling would make it difficult for the setback measure, and others including one dealing with family medical leave. The chamber was part of a business coalition that filed a court brief supporting the court challenge of the Polis order.
“We felt like the constitution of the state is pretty clear in terms of how you have to gather signatures,” she said. “… Our main concern was upholding the integrity of the process of gathering signatures.”
The Governor’s Office said in a statement that it doesn’t believe “outdated process rules should interfere with Coloradans’ right to petition.”
Polis said in a release from his office, “While (Wednesday’s) decision is a blow to the power of the people of our state to petition, it is certainly convenient for certain groups or elected leaders that they have to deal with fewer ballot initiatives. It makes my life easier as Governor that there will be fewer curveballs coming our way, but sadly it’s at the cost of making it much harder and even dangerous from a public health perspective for activists on all sides to get their issues on the ballot for voters to decide.”
Colorado Rising State Action, a conservative group pursuing initiatives to cut state income taxes and require voter approval for some fee-based enterprises, voiced confidence Wednesday that the ruling won’t hinder its efforts on those measures.
“Unlike some other groups, we’ve seen a lot of excitement around our campaign and gathering signatures in-person, so our Vote on Fees campaign won’t be impacted by this decision,” Lindsey Singer, spokesperson for the group, said in a news release.
Petitions with signatures are due Aug. 5.
Foster last week said her group needed to get about 125,000 valid signatures for the setback measure to make the ballot and hoped to gather about 175,000 signatures.
Colorado voters defeated a 2,500-foot drilling setback measure in 2018.
Chelsie Miera, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said she thinks the high-court ruling greatly hindered the ability of Safe & Healthy Colorado to get its measure on the ballot this year, and of a lot of initiatives to make the ballot. She said that’s not a bad thing, given the need to be thoughtful and careful when it comes to statutory and constitutional amendments.
She said changes in how signature-gathering occurs, with checks and balances resulting in an effective, transparent process, might be possible in the future, but not in a short period of time as was the case for the Polis action.
“To put something together in a matter of weeks that has long-lasting implications to Coloradans is scary, and for that I do think the Supreme Court made the right choice,” she said.