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Politics and Government

Interest in reforming Colorado’s system to recall elected officials is building — on both sides of the aisle

Republican state Sen. Jack Tate and Democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan, both of Centennial and former political rivals, are leading the push for change

Lawmakers meet in the Colorado House of Representatives on May 1, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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With attempted recalls of elected officials continuing to sweep across Colorado, interest in reforming the state’s system for ousting people from elected office is growing and early ideas are being debated for possible legislation to be introduced during the 2020 lawmaking term. 

The push for change — which may have to be approved by voters — is coming from both sides of the aisle. 

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Former political rivals Republican state Sen. Jack Tate and Democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan, both of Centennial, who ran against each other in 2016, are separately leading the calls for reform. 

Tate says he wants to update Colorado’s laws to ensure recalls aren’t a frivolous distraction for legislators that are damaging democracy. “Ultimately, we have a job to do down here, tough decisions to make,” he said. “Recall elections are not effort-free endeavors, and you’ve been elected in a general election to make decisions and serve our constituents.”

Sullivan says the state’s current processes make it too easy to try to remove people from office. He wants the state’s system to align with the way recalls are done in other states. “We’re not saying to do away with it,” he said. “There are people out there that should be recalled, but not just because you don’t like the way that person is.”

There are 20 states that allow for elected officials to be recalled ; eight of them require that a threshold of wrongdoing be reached — like being convicted of a crime or misuse of public funds — before someone can be removed from office.

Colorado is not among the eight. Recall proponents need nothing more than a stated purpose to try and launch a campaign to oust someone. And that purpose can be as simple as not liking an elected official’s vote on a single bill. 

Republican state Sen. Jack Tate, left, and Democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan, right. They are former political rivals but they agree that Colorado’s system for recalling elected officials needs changing. (Handouts)

“We just want to be in line with the other eight,” said Sullivan, who was the target of a recall effort that was abandoned earlier this year

He’d also like to see rules changing the formula for calculating how many signatures are required to force a recall election from 25% of the number of people who voted for an official being recalled in their latest election to 25% of a district’s registered voters. 

Those changes would likely require amendments to the state constitution and thus need the votes of two-thirds of the lawmakers in the state Senate and House to pass — a feat that would require significant bipartisan support. If approved, the proposals would then go before Colorado voters and need to secure at least 55% of the vote to be enacted.

Meanwhile, Tate is planning to bring a bill that would make statutory changes to the recall process, which, unlike constitutional amendments, would not need the support of a supermajority of lawmakers and voter approval. 

He wants to bar recall elections during the 120-day legislative session. (Colorado House members serve two-year terms and state senators serve four-year terms.)

Tate also wants recall petitions — the documents used to gather signatures to force a special election — to specify the cost to taxpayers of a recall election. Finally, he wants to mandate that the petitions have only verifiably accurate information on them. 

“It takes that political subjectivity out of the equation and replaces it with a factual determination,” he said. “… Having elections 24/7 disrupts the balance between the rights of citizens to recall officials and the rights of constituents to be served.” 

How other states handle recalls

Recall elections are actually the exception, not the rule, in the U.S. 

“Not all states permit recalls,” said Wendy Underhill, who studies recall statutes as part of her work leading the elections and redistricting program at the National Conference of State Legislatures, based in Denver. “In the states that don’t permit recalls, you might say that the next coming up election is the recall.”

Of the 20 states that do allow recalls, Alaska, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington require some kind of statutory or legal threshold be met before a recall can be initiated.  In essence, the states reserve the possibility of a recall election for only the most egregious acts by an elected official.

(Virginia’s recalls are decided through court rulings and not elections.)

Data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Map by Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun.

“They can be kind of generalized: acts of malfeasance, neglect of duty, incompetence, conviction of a felony,” Underhill said. 

To prove that the threshold of incompetence has been met, for instance, recall proponents might have to go before a judge to present their case. 

Colorado’s current recall processes are pretty much in line with how other states that don’t require a reason for a recall.

Those trying to bring a recall in Colorado must, within 60 days, collect signatures from a number of registered voters equivalent to at least 25% of the total number of votes cast for that official in their most recent election. They must explain their reasoning, but it doesn’t need to meet a legal standard. 

The 25% signature threshold is similar in other states — Kansas requires 40% — but the difficult-to-achieve 60-day timeline in Colorado is shorter than others. Some recall states allow 90 or 120 days to gather the sufficient number of signatures, while others have no time limit. 

“The fact that Colorado is looking at change is a little unusual,” Underhill said, noting that no other states have really taken a hard look at their recall systems. 

But it doesn’t come out of the blue. 

Since the historic 2013 recall of Senate President John Morse, of Colorado Springs, and Sen. Angela Giron, of Pueblo, both Democrats, efforts to oust elected officials in Colorado have been on the rise. A third Democratic state senator also resigned that year to avoid a recall election. 

In 2015, three conservative members of the Jeffco Public Schools’ board — Julie Williams, Ken Witt and John Newkirk — were ousted.

A painter rappels down from the top of the Colorado Capitol building in Denver on Aug. 16, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“A key thing to know is that recalls have been on the books in a number of states, including Colorado, for roughly a century, and more than half of those recalls have happened in the last 10 years,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver who studies recall elections. “It was not a very commonly used tool until fairly recently.”

In the past, Masket says, recalls were used for fairly outrageous and specific abuses — major scandals, someone profiteering off their government role, or an official committing some clear violation of the law while in office.

“That definition has really changed,” he said, noting that Wisconisn and California have seen recent recall waves as well. 

The effect that has on politics and governance is that campaign season never ends. “It’s sort of an extension of campaigning and party warfare,” Masket said. “There used to be this idea that after the campaign ended you could do some governing. With the constant of recalls, (public officials) are constantly campaigning.”

Sullivan experienced that phenomenon first hand. He spent the weeks after his first legislative ended this year defending against the recall effort that was launched against him. 

State Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial, was a prime sponsor of the red flag bill. His son was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Sullivan says he thinks that cost him interim committee assignments, a chance to bond with other lawmakers at conferences and money that was slated to go to his 2020 reelection bid.

“Now I’m 60, 90, 120 days into the interim and I’m finally being able to start to put things together to try and get myself prepared for the upcoming” legislative session, he said.

Three Colorado state senators, all Democrats, are facing active recall campaigns, including Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo, Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood and Pete Lee of Colorado Springs

Tuesday is the deadline for the backers of the Lee recall to gather and turn in 11,304 signatures from voters in his district.

Democrat Gov. Jared Polis also was the target of a recently failed recall effort. Former state Rep. Rochelle Galindo, a Greeley Democrat, also was targeted by a recall campaign earlier this year before she resigned from her statehouse job.

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Is there broader support for change?

It won’t be easy to change Colorado’s system to recall elected officials. 

Recalls are intensely political and it could be a tough sell for elected officials to ask their constituents to give up some of their power. It’s not clear there is the political appetite at the Capitol for such a contentious debate.

Polis declined an interview with The Colorado Sun on his thoughts about changing Colorado’s recall policy. A spokesman said “the governor cannot comment on any legislation he has not seen.”

But in a statement after the effort to oust him from office fell short last week, Polis said the process “should not be used for partisan gamesmanship.” 

Karen Kataline, spokeswoman for the Dismiss Polis effort to recall Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, said Friday that the campaign had missed the 631,266-signature goal to force a special election. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, says there have been burgeoning conversations in his caucus about reforming the recall process. He stressed that specific changes and ideas have not really been discussed and that any effort would constitute an “uphill climb.”

“It’s something I’ve worked on in the past here and there,” he said. “There definitely are things that I think would be good to change.”

Fenberg said he’d like to join other states in requiring specific, statutory grounds for recalls. “To me, that’s what a recall is for,” he said, “not to get a do-over of an election that just occurred.”

In the House, Majority Leader Alec Garnett, of Denver, and Speaker KC Becker, of Boulder, say they want to find a bipartisan route to reforms. 

“It’s pretty hard for us to have that conversation in the midst of all of these recalls,” Garnett said. But he feels that in his caucus there’s “probably agreement that there needs to be reform.”

Becker said she’s not sure what the changes would look like, but the recall process could be “smoother and better.”

“I don’t know what the answer is yet,” she said, “but I think that the process could be better.”

House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, at forum hosted by The Colorado Sun and CBS4 at the University of Denver on May 13, 2019. She has blasted recent recall campaigns as being attempted election do-overs. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, said he hadn’t heard about any specific proposals or bill, but he has immediate doubts.

“Having not been involved in any way in any of the recalls this year, I am skeptical of any effort that would take power away from the people,” he said.

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, did not respond to a message seeking comment on Monday. He threatened to try to oust Democratic lawmakers in the last legislative session if they backed certain legislation or took certain votes. He has also faced criticism from Democrats for his involvement in recall efforts.

Updated at 10:05 a.m. on Sept. 10, 2019: This story has been updated to correct the names of the three Jeffco Public Schools’ board members who were ousted by recall in 2015. They were Julie Williams, Ken Witt and John Newkirk.

Updated at 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2019: This story has been updated to correct a map of states that allow for recall elections. Oregon is among those states. It was also updated to clarify that there are 20 states that allow for recalls, though Virginia does not allow for a recall through the vote of the people and instead requires a court ruling.

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