DENVER — If campaigns and annual elections are a well-oiled machine, then political spending is one of the gears. Even in off-year elections, money plays an important role and 2021 is no exception.
Aside from yard signs and mailers, most voters in the state aren’t likely to see big advertising pushes, though. That’s because much of the money this campaign cycle has been spent on gathering signatures to get a question on the ballot to begin with.
“It is very expensive to get those signatures to get onto the statewide ballot. There’s just a lot of spending that has to happen upfront,” said Ryan Winger, the director of data analysis for Magellan strategies.
Tracking where the money is coming from can be difficult though, since nonprofit groups do not have to disclose who their donors are.
Sandra Fish is a data journalist who has spent years tracking campaign spending in the state. She even runs her own website called FollowtheMoneyCO.com, where she tries to aggregate some of the spending data to make it a little easier to track and understand.
She said this year has been much more laid back in terms of spending, but there are some big-name groups that have gotten involved in both statewide and local campaigns.
“There are nonprofit groups behind them and in most of them they are dark money nonprofit groups that are loosely affiliated with the Republican party,” Fish said.
On the local side, a group called Defend Colorado has spent $290,000 on advertising alone in support of referred question 2F and initiated ordinance 303 on the Denver ballot.
Referred question 2F, otherwise known as Safe and Sound, would overturn a city council ordinance that was passed in February to raise the number of unrelated people who are allowed to live in the same house from two to five.
Meanwhile, initiated ordinance 303, otherwise known as Let’s Do Better, would require stricter enforcement of the city’s campaign ban.
“Defend Colorado spent a lot of money to get three of these measures on the Denver ballot,” Fish said.
On a statewide level, a group called Unite for Colorado has spent more than $2.15 million this election cycle supporting Amendment 78 and Proposition 120.
Both of the groups have loose ties to the Republican party. While left-leaning nonprofits have also spent big on federal and state elections using very similar tactics, as Colorado starts to lean more to the democratic side, Winger and Fish say Republican groups have found ballot questions to be an effective way to get their policies passed.
“On the Republican side, I do think that they’re going to start using these ballot measures more and more often, simply because it’s kind of a way to get their ideas before voters in a way that has been more successful than for them,” Winger said.
Fish, meanwhile, said Republicans have had a difficult time lately getting their candidates elected and these ballot questions are a way to have more of a voice in the state.
That means if the money keeps coming in, local and statewide ballots could continue to be crowded.
“That’s the argument the Republicans are making now right is the legislature doesn’t know what voters want,” Winger said.
During last year’s election, the side that spent the most money was the winning side for each ballot question, which Winger says could set a concerning precedent.
The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office is working on ways to make tracking campaign finance easier. In September, staff presented a proposal to the legislature’s Joint Technology Committee to create a comprehensive money in politics system.
The system would allow users to take a closer look at connections between political contributions and lobbying groups. Currently, the Secretary of State’s Office has two systems to track money: TRACER for campaign-finance and a separate lobbyist website, both of which were created more than a decade ago.
“Those systems — you could do so much more in this day and age in terms of computer programming and those systems really need to be updated. They need to be modernized,” Fish said.
The goal of the proposal is to combine and update those to systems to make them more user friendly, but an upgrade would require help from the legislature in the form of funding. It could also take years for this program to get going.
For now, Winger said voters should try to research ballot questions and the groups supporting or opposing them to try to piece together what’s happening behind the scenes, and determine whether it lines up with their personal values.
“Just kind of play devil’s advocate a little bit there and not be so completely swayed by the spending so that it’s automatic, 'OK, whoever spends the most money is going to win,'” Winger said.
Election day is Nov. 2.