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Republicans propose big changes to Colorado’s elections, including scaling back mail and in-person voting

The bills aren’t likely to get very far in the Democratic-controlled legislature, but they come amid a push by Republicans across the country to change election processes after a 2020 contest filled with falsehoods

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A group of Republican state lawmakers has introduced a slate of bills to reshape Colorado’s gold-standard election processes, including a proposal that would require voters to request a mail ballot instead of automatically receiving one and require vote counting to finish on Election Day. 

It’s unlikely that any of the proposals will get traction in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate. But they come with the backdrop of former President Donald Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 election. The presidential election wasn’t close in Colorado, which since 2013 has sent mail-in ballots to all active voters and last year became a model for other states seeking to expand mail voting.

Democrats say the legislation is an effort to dismantle a system that has expanded voting access, and that Republicans are introducing the bills as an appeal to their base. 

Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, said the Republican sponsors of the election-related bills did not contact her office before introducing them.

“I really think these bills are intended to disenfranchise voters and scare people,” she said. “By spreading this misinformation through these bills I do think the Republican legislators are trying to further degrade our democracy.”

Republican lawmakers disagree.

“This is about not letting the good — and Colorado has a good election system — be the enemy of great,” said state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, who is bringing the bill that would make the most dramatic alterations. “We shouldn’t rest on our laurels … on something as important as democracy.”

Bills from Lundeen and other Colorado Republicans are similar to those being proposed by Republicans in state legislatures across the nation in the wake of the divisive 2020 presidential election. Many of the proposals in other states would limit mail-in balloting, which Trump attacked before voting began. The former president later criticized signatures on mail ballots, the accuracy of voter registration rolls and more, refusing to acknowledge his loss to Democrat Joe Biden.

Lundeen’s legislation, Senate Bill 7, would radically reshape Colorado’s voting process by reversing a lauded expansion of mail voting. 

Currently, Colorado mails a ballot to every active registered voter, which they can return at a drop box, or through the mail. They may also vote in person during the two weeks before Election Day. 

Senate Bill 7 would require voters to request a mail ballot and limit in-person voting to Election Day and the six days before. It also would require county clerks to count all ballots on Election Day, allowing only a five-hour window after the polls close to complete the count. The Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs committee will consider the measure Tuesday afternoon.

Only 6% of voters cast in-person ballots in the November general election, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, and Colorado had the second highest voter turnout in the nation. 

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

Lundeen declined to discuss specifics of the proposal or explain why his bill seeks to limit a mail voting system that has been in place for several years. Instead, he said the purpose of his bill was “to start a conversation.”

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat who has long worked on election and voter-access issues, called the slate of legislation a political move by Republicans.

“My sense is, they know it’s bad policy, and they know it’s not going to pass, but it’s a statement,” Fenberg said, adding that the conversation that Lundeen wants to initiate is “perpetuating a lie.”

“It’s a false premise that there’s rampant fraud and we need to tighten restrictions, even if it means disenfranchising people,” Fenberg said. 

County clerks may have objections as well. Lundeen’s bill would cost the state an estimated $1 million in the 2022-23 fiscal year, and would cost small counties a minimum of $37,000 each and large counties up to $1.5 million, according to a fiscal analysis by nonpartisan legislative staffers. 

“I think our folks will have some very interesting comments on that bill,” said Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association. Crane, a Republican, is a former Arapahoe County clerk and recorder.

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The new costs for counties would come from mailing notices to voters, adding more polling places and to hire more staff to manage mail ballot requests and count votes by Election Day.

Election results are virtually never completed and finalized on Election Day, said Crane, adding that the association so far has not taken a stance on the legislation. “That perception has never been reality.”

A recent report from free-market think tank R Street argues against efforts to limit voting by mail.

“We don’t see any evidence from the election that mail-in voting was any sort of problem,” said Steven Greenhut, Western region director for R Street. “Republicans did well (in 2020). One particular Republican didn’t do well.”

Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser on elections at the Democracy Fund, said Colorado is considered a model for other states on how to conduct “a safe, secure, accessible vote-by-mail election.” 

“So in this moment, the fact that (some in) Colorado are now saying they need to change, is very interesting,” Patrick said. “If that was a problem with their system, those changes would have been introduced years ago, not just in this moment when a certain candidate didn’t win.”

Colorado State Senator James Coleman, left, (D-33rd Dist.), chats with Senate Minority Whip Paul Lundeen (R-9th Dist.), on the floor of the Senate during the first day of ColoradoÕs 73rd legislative session at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lundeen’s bill is far from the only legislative changes Republicans are seeking to Colorado’s election processes.

House Bill 1086, introduced by Rep. Stephanie Luck, a first-year Republican from Penrose, would require voters to appear in-person and present proof of citizenship in order to vote if documentation isn’t already on file.

State and federal law already requires citizenship to vote. Voting by noncitizens is “extraordinarily rare,” according to numerous studies compiled by the Brennan Center

Former Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican, said in 2011 that he suspected thousands of noncitizens were registered to vote and that more than 4,000 had illegally cast ballots in Colorado. An investigation by his own office found just a fraction – 35 people – cast ballots, or 0.001% of the state’s total registered voters. 

Griswold said federal courts have struck down such laws in the past.

The other election-related bills proposed by Republicans are more technical. They include:

  • House Bill 1053, which would allow any registered voter, not just a candidate or political party, to request a recount. The requester would have to cover the cost of the recount.
  • House Bill 1088, which would require an annual audit of voter registration lists.
  • Senate Bill 10, which would require witnesses helping voters who are unable to sign their own ballots to live in the same county as the voter.

Griswold said her office will support a separate bill, which has yet to be introduced, making minor election law changes. She said her office is working with county clerks and others on the measure, which will be sponsored by Fenberg.

Griswold’s 2022 reelection campaign sent a fundraising email Thursday citing Lundeen’s proposal. “This bill would reduce early voting and restrict access to mail ballots — hallmarks of Colorado’s best-in-class election system,” the email read.

Republicans, echoing back to a daylong election integrity hearing in December, have failed to offer substantive evidence of widespread fraud. They also say Colorado’s elections system is robust and that their bills aren’t about Trump’s loss. Instead, their messaging focuses on the notion that lawmakers should curtail the mere potential for fraud, even if it hasn’t been shown to be a major issue.

“You can’t move forward looking in your rearview mirror,” said Lundeen, who said he wants to initiate a conversation that moves beyond Trump or the 2020 election. 

Election judges process ballots at Denver’s 14th Avenue and Bannock Street polling station on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

He also took aim at Griswold for what he characterized as failing to offer any proposals or ideas on how to make improvements to the state’s election processes. Griswold didn’t appear in person at the December hearing, but submitted a statement and written response to questions from lawmakers.

Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican, supports Lundeen’s bill.

“I don’t agree with the secretary of state that this would disenfranchise voters,” Williams said. “There is a massive potential for fraud when we mail out ballots when the voter rolls aren’t completely cleaned up.” 

But Democrats have said that there’s not much to fix. Griswold said state voter rolls are updated daily with information from other state agencies, and checked monthly against the Social Security death registry. “Our voter rolls are considered some of the cleanest in the nation,” she said.

Williams, who is sponsoring the recount bill, said his legislation is targeted at issues that shouldn’t be considered partisan, an argument echoed by other Republican lawmakers. 

First-year Rep. Andy Pico, a Colorado Springs Republican, is requesting the bill to require annual audits of voter rolls. 

“This is a validation of procedures in place already,” Pico said. “I think an audit is appropriate regardless of whatever you think happened in November.”

Patrick, from the Democracy Fund, said changing long-standing policies without evidence of a problem is reactionary, and can hurt the public’s understanding of election processes when it’s time to participate

“I think part of the challenge when we talk about access and the security trade-offs comes from a presupposed risk of unsubstantiated fraud,” he said. 

“So to presuppose something that happens in such an infinitesimal amount … well, the backside of that pendulum is going to negatively affect far more people than [those who] ever experience any sort of fraudulent activity.”