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Politics and Government

Colorado’s elections are lauded, but conservatives and advocates for voting access see room for changes

The issues of voting deadlines and misinformation, as well as citizenship voting requirements, could become conversation at Capitol

People vote by dropping off their ballots in the final day before Election Day in Denver, CO, November 2, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado’s voting system performed without major flaws this year, but voting advocates are wondering how to improve it and critics suggest a recent constitutional change makes it ripe for legal challenges.

The disparate views come as President Donald Trump and his allies challenge vote counts in other states. In Colorado, officials are preparing to certify the election Monday with little controversy.

The primary questions that arose after the 2020 election in Colorado involved whether to extend the ballot deadline to allow more votes to count and how to address misinformation and disinformation.

An unknown on the horizon is what impact Amendment 76 will have in Colorado after voters approved a constitutional change to say “only citizens” can vote. Some conservatives believe the amendment could challenge existing voting laws like same-day registration, and it likely will nullify a provision that allowed some 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections. 

On the whole, leaders are celebrating another election in Colorado with high turnout, a smooth Election Day and a quick count. “Colorado was prepared for this moment years ago,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder.

Colorado’s turnout has increased every year since the state created a mail-ballot system in 2013, a method that positioned Colorado well to overcome the type of voting complications other states have experienced during the pandemic. 

“I think the strength of Colorado’s program was it wasn’t something we were rapidly adjusting to in the wake of the pandemic,” said Amanda Gonzalez, the executive director of Colorado Common Cause, an organization that advocates for policies to make voting more accessible.

Unlike other states, Colorado doesn’t allow ballots received after Election Day to be counted. Some states did, making the shift to ensure everyone who wanted to vote had ample time to do so, particularly with questions about the Postal Service and new vote-by-mail systems.

The ballot deadline is established by state law, so it would have been up to the legislature to change it, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said before the election. And lawmakers have previously discussed moving it, Fenberg said. “It’s been on the table and something we’ve considered over the years,” he said.

Most states have a hard election-night deadline, Fenberg said, noting the extensions observed this year in some states were prompted by the unique situation created by the pandemic.

Younger voters cast a disproportionate number of ballots that are rejected because they are received after the 7 p.m. election deadline. Gonzalez said extending the ballot acceptance deadline is “definitely something that we should examine.”

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House Judiciary Chairman Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, also didn’t rule out the possibility of moving the deadline, but he said there are statutory limitations on how far it could be extended because clerks have a limited amount of time to allow voters to fix their ballots, verify provisional ballots and certify results.  

“There are a lot of deadlines that start to stack up after Election Day,” Weissman said.  

Griswold through a spokesman declined to comment on possible changes to the state’s election procedures, saying it was too soon to look back on the election. The Democrat’s priority this year was combating misinformation and disinformation, often reminding voters “opinions are fun, but facts are better.”

Griswold created a new unit within her office to combat election falsehoods and hired Nathan Blumenthal, the former acting deputy assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to run the operation.

Gonzalez, with Common Cause, said the secretary of state’s focus on preventing foreign interference left room for examination of domestic sources of faulty information. She said policymakers need to consider the pervasive influence of social media, particularly as more and more Americans use it as a source of news and information.

“Social media grew so rapidly that many of our laws and policies don’t keep it in mind or need to be updated for the new world we’re living in,” she said. 

Some legislative leaders said misinformation was a major issue, but they were unsure what, if any, action they could take to address it.

“We need to allow people to say what they have to say,” said state Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument. “We all need to be wise, we all need to sort through the information.” 

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Lundeen added that it was “incumbent on the voter” to be able to weed out faulty information and said the legislature should consider how to combat the issue.

Fenberg said he hoped the federal government would take action to beat back the threat of misinformation, but he said the legislature should do “everything we can to ensure the integrity of our elections.”

“The question,” he added, “is what resources, or what policy changes, would actually fix the problem?”

Colorado conservatives took aim at another perceived problem and successfully pushed Amendment 76, which they hope will lead to a shift in the state’s voting laws.

Colorado’s constitution says “every citizen” of the U.S. who is 18 or older, a resident and registered to vote can participate in elections. Amendment 76 changed the first component to “only a citizen.” Federal, state and local elections in Colorado already allowed only U.S. citizens to participate.

The impact remains unclear, but one change seems nearly inevitable: 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by the November election will no longer be able to vote in the state’s primaries. The Democratic-controlled state legislature added that provision as part of the Colorado Votes Act, which was approved along party lines in 2019. 

“That was a policy move to help encourage young people to get involved in the process early, and that was a good policy,” said Weissman, the House Democrat. “And now it’s certainly shut down.”

George Athanasopoulos, one of the amendment’s petitioners in Colorado and a former Republican U.S. congressional candidate, said the constitutional change goes even further. He said it puts an onus on Griswold to evaluate current election laws and ensure that they abide by the new amendment. His remarks come as the Republican Party in a few counties is raising objections to certifying the vote, moves that will not have a significant impact on the election books being closed.

“I think the secretary of state has a duty to tell the voters how she is going to implement a system to make sure noncitizens don’t vote in our election,” he said.

In particular, Athanasopoulos argued that same-day voter registration is now illegal under the amendment because it did not allow time to verify citizenship, and added that the legislature was “obligated to take action” in light of the new amendment. 

But Fenberg and Weissman said they didn’t think the new amendment would have any substantive impact on current laws. “The real issue and the real aim of this group that put this on the ballot was to inspire future court cases,” Fenberg said. 

He added that he remained confident those court cases would be unsuccessful. “They would have to prove that there is a rampant problem with noncitizens voting in Colorado,” Fenberg said. 

There is no widespread evidence that noncitizens are voting in Colorado. “It’s just not true,” Weissman said of the voter fraud allegations. “The data’s just not there.”

Lundeen, the GOP senator, said the new amendment would “very likely” prompt a conversation at the statehouse about different measures to ensure the accuracy of the vote, but he didn’t know of any bills currently being considered on the issue. 

He also emphasized that Colorado’s voting system stood out above its peers because it made it relatively easy to vote. “We want everyone who is eligible to be able to vote,” he said.

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