Skip to contents
Politics and Government

Don’t like what state lawmakers do? Here’s how to recall a law in Colorado

Voters were last asked to overturn a law approved by the Colorado General Assembly in 1932. And it worked.

Denver voters cast ballots on Nov. 8, 2018 (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

Republicans frustrated with the Democratic agenda at the Capitol are pulling out all the stops trying to thwart their political foes.

And one of the tactics they’re considering hasn’t been used since the Great Depression.

Monument Mayor Don Wilson and Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese, both Republicans, say they want to ask voters to overturn legislation approved by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly to add Colorado to the national popular vote compact.

The bill is awaiting Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ signature but he has expressed his support. The measure would enter Colorado into an agreement with other states to cast its nine electoral college votes for the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote — even if that candidate doesn’t win in Colorado. The agreement would take effect only if enough states join the compact to total the 270 Electoral College votes needed to elect a president.

“People were stopping me on Main Street when the bill was introduced,” Pugliese said. “They were saying, ‘Hey, what can we do to stop the national popular vote from going through?’”

MORE: Without a single Republican in support, national popular vote effort moves to Colorado governor’s desk

In fact, Pugliese said, she’s getting more feedback on the bill to change presidential voting than on other controversial measures pushed by Democrats this year: oil and gas regulation reform, repeal of the death penalty or the “red flag” gun law.

In the past, Republicans have backed the national popular vote concept, including former gubernatorial candidate and Congressman Tom Tancredo. He’s since rescinded his support.

The national nonprofit pushing the idea includes both Democrats and Republicans among its ranks. John Koza, the founder of National Popular Vote, noted that the Colorado Senate passed the bill with a GOP co-sponsor in 2006, though it died in the House.

And if Republicans push to rescind the bill, it wouldn’t be in the first time it’s happened, Koza said. “There was a petition taken out in Washington state when the bill passed (in 2009) and it got a lot of publicity and ended up with less than 300 signatures,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean something might go down differently in Colorado.”

Colorado voters added a referendum power to the state Constitution in 1910 to create the ability to overturn laws passed by the legislature. Most bills carry such language at the end, clarifying that it takes effect unless challenged at the ballot. But the legislature can circumvent a referendum by deeming a bill so essential that it must take effect immediately upon signing. To do that, the legislature adds a “safety clause” to such bills.

The issue of whether to allow voters to petition is becoming a political issue this session. Republican lawmakers s are upset that Democrats attached a safety clause to controversial legislation, such as new regulations on the oil and gas industry and additional requirements for sexual education in school.

The national popular vote legislation, Senate Bill 42, specifically allows for voters to challenge the measure.

What it takes to petition to overturn a law

The ability to demand voter approval – or rejection – of laws passed by a legislature exists in 23 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a Denver-based bipartisan organization. For example, Nebraska voters overturned the repeal of the death penalty in 2016.

But the last time a law was challenged and went to Colorado voters was 1932 — and it was successful.

That law increased the tax on oleomargarine to 15 cents per pound from 10 cents. The Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post editorialized against the tax hike, with The Post calling it “an attempt on the part of Brown Cannon and the milk trust to kill off all competition and compel poor people to buy butter.” Cannon was the founder of Windsor Farm Dairy.

Nearly 62 percent of Coloradans — about 218,000 people — voted to overturn the tax hike.

To do it now, Pugliese, Wilson and their supporters would need to collect valid signatures from 124,632 Colorado voters after the measure is signed into law. She said Coloradans Vote, a registered issue committee, will recruit volunteers and raise money to pay to gather petition signatures. .

The signatures would need to be filed Aug. 1, which is 90 days after the session ends.

The Colorado Capitol in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, The Colorado Sun)

Gathering those signatures can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Colorado Rising for Health and Safety, for instance, spent nearly $500,000 to get Proposition 112 for oil and gas development setbacks on the 2018 ballot, where it failed. Typically, groups gather many more signatures than required to compensate for those that are determined invalid.

“Once we get it on the ballot, that’s step one,” Pugliese said. “Step two is actually educating the public about the Electoral College, how it works in Colorado.”

Even if enough signatures are gathered, the measure wouldn’t be on the ballot until 2020, because the original 1910 constitutional amendment requires such votes in even-numbered years. The only exceptions are laws that come under the Taxpayers Bill of Rights.

Even attempting to challenge a law is rare, said retired Colorado State University political scientist John Straayer.

In 2000, however, the legislature gutted a 1996 voter-approved initiative on campaign contribution limits. That led supporters to put a constitutional amendment on the 2002 ballot to prevent the legislature from changing the measure without voter approval.

Koza noted that the national popular vote is among many controversial issues in Colorado this session.

“We have to sort of weave our way through all this partisan stuff,” he sad. “We have never heard any convincing argument as to why either party has a systemic advantage under a national popular vote.”

But Pugliese said it’s a debate that needs to go to the people.

“I think on something as important as your vote, I think that it’s not really up to the legislature to decide how our votes are counted,” she said. “It should be up to us.”


The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.

This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.