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Colorado lawmakers consider making changes to how recall elections work in the state

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Posted at 6:15 PM, May 04, 2021

DENVER — Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to tweak the way elections will run in the state. Bill co-sponsor Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, says the bill offers a number of technical changes but is also aimed at making voting in Colorado even easier.

“In Colorado we have a really good and well-functioning, assessable election system. We, just about every year, run a bill that takes lessons learned from the previous election, and we try to make little tweaks to ensure that our election system is running better,” said Fenberg.

Among the changes in Senate Bill 250 is a rule that anyone waiting in line to drop off their ballot at a ballot box at 7 p.m. on election day will be allowed to do so.

Currently, that protection is in place for people waiting in line to cast a ballot in person but does not extend to drop-off locations.

Another portion of the 82-page bill requires higher education institutions to send out an email to students twice a year about voter eligibility and how to register to vote.

Some of the biggest changes have to do with the recall system in the state. Bill co-sponsors say it’s an effort to make the process more transparent.

If there’s one thing Colorado has seen a lot of in recent years, it’s recall efforts. Governor Jared Polis has faced two unsuccessful efforts over the past two years and a third is currently underway.

State lawmakers have also experienced a number of recall efforts, some successful and others not. The reasons for the recalls run the gamut; they range from gun bills to COVID-19 executive orders.

Rep. Rochelle Galindo faced two recall efforts for her support of an oil and gas and gun bill. The Greeley Democrat resigned before any recall took place.

Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood; Sen. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo; Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village; Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs; Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial; former Rep. Bri Buentello, D-Peublo; and Rep. Meg Froelich, D-Englewood, are some of the politicians on a state level who have faced recall efforts over the past two years.

On a local level, there was a recall effort in Arvada over trash collection, Elizabeth over development, Nederland over rental rates, Avon over a real estate tax and more. The list of recalls over the past few years goes on.

Most recently, a group in Westminster has decided to try to recall their mayor and several city councilmembers over water rates.

The city announced last week that enough signatures had been collected and verified to trigger a recall election against Mayor Herb Atchison and Councilman Jon Voelz. On Monday, the mayor unexpectedly announced he was resigning.

Mayor pro tem Anita Seitz will now take over the post. Seitz also faced an unsuccessful recall petition herself over the water rates.

Senate Bill 250 would put more guardrails around how the recall petition system would work. First, it establishes a clearer timeline of dates and deadlines for when to have things certified by and when to have ballots sent out among other things.

Other portions of the bill are more policy based; one section of the bill requires the petition to allow for a small statement from the politician being recalled to be able to defend themselves.

“I think that’s fair. I think it’s about voter education and transparency,” Fenberg said.

Another portion of the bill bans someone from being recalled if there are less than six months on the job or less than six months away from an election.

The bill also requires petitions to feature a cost estimate for would-be signers to see and understand how much a special election will cost the city or state.

There are also new licensing requirements for signature gatherers to go through the Secretary of State’s Office. Fenberg says this process already happens with elections and is a matter of protecting people’s personal information.

The bill also bans petitioners from making false statements on the petition itself and requires signature gatherers who are being paid to wear a badge saying “paid circulator” while those who are not being paid must wear a badge saying “volunteer circulator.”

Fenberg doesn’t believe the changes will make a recall effort more difficult and instead insists that the changes will provide more transparency for voters.

“I think recalls are very serious, and they should be allowed. It’s in our constitution. It's a recourse that voters have if they feel that their elected leaders are doing something egregious,” he said. “They should not be used willy-nilly as a political threat or to get even with somebody because of one simple vote they took, for instance. That’s what elections are for.”

Others disagree and believe the changes have the potential to make recalls even more difficult and time consuming.

Debbie Teeter is an endorser of the Westminster water recall petition. This was her first time trying to recall an elected official and she says she had no idea how complicated the process was going to be.

“It’s very hard to get straight answers and direct answers of how you want to work,” Teeter said.

The group had difficulties with only gathering signatures from people within incorporated areas of the city. They had to fix issue after issue with the petitions and signatures. There was even a lawsuit over the recall effort.

Teeter says the recall petition was a last resort after years of showing up to city council meetings to make her case with nothing being done.

“It’s not something to take lightly,” she said. “It’s a time-consuming and very expensive proposition.”

Nevertheless, she says recalls are an important way for constituents to make their voices heard. She disagrees with some of the changes the new election bill offers, including requirement to include a statement from the person being recalled.

Teeter believes that will pollute the petition with too many words and make it confusing for voters to understand what the petition is about.

She also thinks it adds an undue burden on citizens.

“I think they’ll still have recalls, but I think your chances of success, as it is right now, it’s so narrow for a chance of success. So, why are they so afraid that they’ve got a put more into it to make it harder?” she said.

For now, the recall petition for Westminster is moving forward and could face further legal action. The petitioners say the election was announced by the city clerk before the mayor resigned so it should go through so that voters have a chance to pick a replacement.

While all of that is happening, state lawmakers are debating whether the recall process needs to be reworked overall.