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The 2020 election blue book is compiled by nonpartisan legislative staff to help voters understand the ballot measures. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado voters this year are tasked with making informed decisions on a labyrinth of ballot issues and a polarized pallet of races. 

To help them navigate the statewide ballot measures, the state provides what is known as the blue book, a roughly 90-page guide that looks at the legal, fiscal and practical implications of the policy questions. (It also includes an addendum on judicial evaluations.) The state sent about 2.5 million copies of the ballot guide — named for its blue cover — ahead of the election to every address that has a registered voter.

Natalie Mullis leads the effort to compile the booklet as director of the Colorado General Assembly’s nonpartisan research arm, the legislative council staff. She says her team solicits input from interested parties on all sides of a given issue and compiles it into briefings for voters.

“The legislative council staff takes this responsibility very seriously and believes it’s a great honor to do it,” Mullis said. “And it is our goal to make it unbiased and accurate and easy to understand.”

Still, that’s not to say the blue book is entirely impervious to politics, because it includes arguments from either side of the issue. Mullis said legislative staff won’t just copy and paste arguments into the booklet, and they always leave out campaign slogans. In addition, state lawmakers on the Legislative Council Committee are empowered to change the language.

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In Colorado, the blue books are considered particularly useful because they supplement mail voting, allowing voters to review the information on ballot questions as they complete their ballots. Not all states send out blue books, but with so many Coloradans using the book, it’s critical that it remains nonpartisan, Mullis said. 

That doesn’t mean the blue book doesn’t face controversy. The opponents of Amendment B, a measure to repeal the Gallagher Amendment, sued in September to try to stop the book from being published, because they said state legislators made the section on Amendment B biased. A Denver judge threw the lawsuit out of court. 

Back in 2016, Colorado lawmakers amended the blue book to make a measure they opposed less appealing. It takes a two-thirds majority of the Legislative Council committee to make edits to the version lawmakers receive from nonpartisan staff. Mullis says that supermajority requirement means partisan issues are left largely untouched by the council, but also sets the bar low enough to make significant changes on less-polarizing topics. 

How Colorado’s ballot guide is drafted 

The process of putting that guide together starts months before the election. Typically, legislative council staff submit the book to three rounds of revision, but this year delays related to COVID-19 extended the length of the legislative session and trimmed that number down to two. The legislative committee typically reviews the booklet around Labor Day, Mullis said. 

Each round of revisions brings new feedback from issue committees registered to support or oppose a ballot measure. The input from the activists on either side can become part of the background or arguments section of the book. On occasion, Mullis said, a concerned citizen or two also will submit information to the team.

But Mullis said all information that makes it into the book is vetted. Even the sections that argue for or against a given position are compiled by the staff and prioritize facts over “interpretation or opinion.” Her staff is careful not to include campaign slogans or inflammatory language. 

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“We strive to make it as unbiased as possible,” she said. “We never want to put anything out that’s biased or partisan.”

Coloradans in four counties received two blue books in the mail, one in English and one in Spanish. Federal law requires officials to send non-English language election materials to every person who lives in a county where a certain portion of U.S. citizens of voting age lists a different native language. Previously the state included the Spanish version of the text within the same blue book. (It also produced an audio blue book, which is available at this link.) But this year the state sent a Spanish book and an English one separately because it’s cheaper than printing them together, Mullis said. 

The total cost of producing and distributing the election information materials exceeded $2.5 million this year, including $1.04 million for printing, $684,000 for postage, $15,000 for translation services and $780,000 for printing the ballot information in newspapers, a required practice under the state’s constitution.

This story was produced with support from a grant from the American Press Institute.

The Colorado Sun | Twitter: @EvanOchsner