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Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold at an event with U.S Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Dec. 6, 2019, in Denver. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The coronavirus pandemic is making it harder for candidates and initiatives to qualify for the ballot in Colorado, and leading to concerns about disenfranchisement.

The governor’s stay-at-home and social distancing orders are preventing advocates for eight ballot campaigns from collecting the 124,632 valid voter signatures each need to make the November election. Likewise, the efforts for more than a dozen additional citizen initiatives are essentially frozen in place until the statewide lockdown lifts.

But the clock continues to tick. The deadline to submit signatures for one measure arrives in June and most others must return their petitions in early August. 

The voter-initiated questions in jeopardy include a major overhaul of the state’s tax system, a tobacco tax to generate money for preschool education, regulations on oil and gas drilling, a paid leave program for workers and much more.

“We will expect to see fewer citizen initiatives,” said Wendy Underhill, the elections director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a Denver-based bipartisan organization. In the states where they are allowed, she said, “they are having a hard time … because right now is when they would be out gathering signatures, and gathering signatures doesn’t seem like a good idea when people are in stay at home mode.”

Gov. Jared Polis and Secretary of State Jena Griswold, both Democrats, are considering executive action to give ballot campaigns more flexibility in collecting signatures, possibly by extending the due dates. “You should not be collecting signatures under the stay-at-home order,” Griswold said during a virtual town hall Thursday.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold at an event with U.S Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Dec. 6, 2019, in Denver. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The state’s current stay-at-home order continues through Saturday, but the governor is considering extending the mandate, following the actions of Denver.

The state constitution prohibits obtaining voter signatures online, but the governor could ask the state Supreme Court to waive the requirement for in-person collection. Utah’s governor in late March suspended a similar law to allow for electronic submission. 

Asked in an interview Friday whether he could take action, Polis would not discuss his thinking on the issue. “I can’t really talk about what’s being worked on,” he told The Colorado Sun.

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The pandemic already is making it harder for candidates to qualify

Regardless of whether the governor takes action, the impact of the COVID-19 virus already is apparent on the ballot.

The fears of the disease escalated in Colorado just ahead of the deadline for candidates to submit signatures to qualify for the June primary ballot, and some claimed it kept them from reaching the threshold.

Others are anxiously waiting to find out if they collected enough by the March 17 deadline. Many of the candidates at risk of not making the primary ballot are women and people of color, as well as newcomers to the political process.

The alternative method to qualify for the ballot in Colorado also is plagued by the pandemic and leading some to miss the cut. The candidates who are seeking to gather at least 30% support at political party assemblies are having a difficult time adapting now that most are taking place online.

Democrat Hazel Gibson lost her bid to qualify for the ballot in State House District 6 by a single vote in Denver County’s virtual assembly. She received 29.5% support — just shy of the threshold needed to secure her name on the June 30 primary. State Rep. Steven Woodrow, who was appointed to the seat in February, qualified with 70.5%.

Gibson called the process confusing and unfair. “In a normal situation, I would have been able to talk to (the delegates), to see them face-to-face, and I wasn’t given that opportunity,” said Gibson, a veteran political organizer. Her virtual campaign became more difficult after she and her children became sick with symptoms that matched COVID-19. They were not tested, however.

The result — along with the tallies from two other drum-tight contests at the Denver County assembly — were challenged and led to a review by the state Democratic Party. In all three cases, the outcome was reaffirmed, party officials said.

The new environment may make it “impossible” for ballot questions

Even if the stay-at-home orders are lifted, the ballot initiative campaigns are concerned about collecting signatures given that public health fears are expected to linger. 

Jennie Peek-Dunstone, a Democratic strategist who works on ballot campaigns, said the mechanics all need to change. 

The canvassers need to carry hand sanitizer and possibly hundreds of pens so the person who signs can keep it, rather than using one for everyone. In addition, events with big crowds that are ripe for signature gathering may not be as large, so it will take longer to reach the number needed. 

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The campaigns facing August deadlines may struggle to make the ballot given the huge numbers of signatures needed, Peek-Dunstone said. And the well-funded interests will hold the advantage.

“Some of it depends on when things get back to the new normal. If that happens in late May or early June, you may be able to do it,” she said. “But you’re going to be cutting it close.”

Daniel Hayes, a Golden resident behind a ballot measure to limit housing growth in 11 Front Range counties, said his effort is doomed because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Hayes has until June 5 to turn in the necessary signatures, but he’s throwing in the towel. “It failed — there’s no way,” he said in an interview. “If it hadn’t been for the virus, we would have been there.”

Ryan Lynch, a Republican consultant working on the so-called “green giveback” citizen initiative, which would create a tax break for people who drive their cars less than 12,000 miles a year, said executive action is needed to loosen the rules on petitions.

“It would be impossible for anything not already on the ballot to get on with the current rules,” he said.

Three questions are qualified for the ballot so far: a repeal the state’s national popular vote law; a requirement for U.S. citizenship to vote; and the reintroduction of gray wolves.

Other campaigns press forward and get creative with canvassing

On Friday, the state said a measure that would ban abortions after 22-weeks failed to get the number of signatures needed to make the November ballot, as expected. But it’s not a done deal.

The supporters of the “Due Date Too Late” campaign now have 15-days to collect an additional 10,000 valid signatures. Prompted by a lawsuit filed by the organizers, a judge granted them a reprieve, saying the 15-day clock didn’t start until after the state’s stay-at-home order is lifted.

Suzanne Staiert, an attorney working on the group’s behalf, said the campaign expects to get the additional signatures and secure a ballot position. “We have an issue that is near and dear to a lot of people’s hearts,” she said. “It’s different than circulating a petition for a different kind of issue.”

The proponents behind a major overhaul of the state’s tax system are likewise undeterred. The “Fair Tax Colorado” campaign is proposing to strike elements of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and create a tiered tax system that forces the wealthy to pay more and lower rates for most others.

The campaign announced its launch March 5 — the same day the state confirmed its first positive COVID-19 test — and faces an Aug. 3 deadline. In the canvassing pause, the campaign is hosting webinars to educate supporters about the issue and mailing petitions to hundreds of people to get them ready to collect signatures when it’s safe again.

The interest level is high so far. “Being able to do something right now feels good,” said Abby Vining, the campaign’s director. “Even if ‘doing something’ is just getting something in the mail and holding on to it.”

When the effort will restart is hard to predict, she said, so for now, the campaign “is in this stay-safe-and-get-ready space.”

Staff writer Jesse Paul and correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.