Colorado Voters to Test Ballot Reform
By Dan Luzadder, Special to Stateline
As autumn settles on this quiet mountain town an hour west of Denver, political signs are blooming. Some tout John McCain, others Barack Obama. But many more bear cryptic messages that are as characteristic of this state as the season's golden aspen leaves and fading wildflowers.
The signs urge attention to a bumper crop of ballot questions - 14 in all - that will confront state voters on Nov. 4. So many proposals await them that Colorado's political leaders are worried that voter fatigue may affect results for the lengthy, complex constitutional amendments. Denver has added polling places to help head off long lines, and voter drives encourage people to vote by mail.
Before four labor-rights amendments were removed hours before an Oct. 2 deadline, this would have been the second-longest list of ballot measures to be put before voters by either citizens or the Legislature since the initiative process became part of Colorado's constitution in 1912 - and launched Colorado as a "cradle state" for direct democracy.
Judging by the length of this year's initiative list, the Populist-inspired process that lets Colorado citizens bring proposed laws to a popular vote appears healthy, even vigorous.
But nestled among ballot measures on taxes, education, gambling and abortion is Referendum O , a constitutional amendment that directly affects the initiative process itself. The measure, referred to the ballot by Colorado's Democratic-controlled Legislature, would fundamentally change the rules - and Colorado's reputation as the easiest state in the nation in which to field-test controversial ideas at the ballot box.
Initiatives are often the only way for popular but controversial ideas to become law, proponents say. They point to passage of initiatives in various states on medical marijuana, term limits, election and campaign-finance reform and assisted suicide - all shunned by lawmakers.
Referendum O discourages ballot measures that chisel new rules into the constitution, where they can't be changed except by another statewide vote. It encourages statutory changes instead. The effort is seen in some circles as the latest reaction to the controversial TABOR amendment - the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights passed in the early 1990s to harness lawmakers' ability to tax and spend. TABOR easily has been Colorado's most hotly debated, praised and vilified citizen initiative in the past 96 years.
Referendum O's proposals would make it hard for a measure like TABOR ever to get on the ballot again. It would impose new restrictions on how signatures of qualified voters are collected on petitions, requiring that 8 percent be obtained from each of Colorado's congressional districts. TABOR's petition circulators - and those who followed - traditionally have focused on densely populated areas such as Denver to meet signature-gathering deadlines.
"O" also requires public hearings on drafts of new proposals, raises the number of required signatures for constitutional amendments and lowers them for statutory changes. It offers petition writers another incentive to aim at statutory rather than constitutional changes: A two-thirds vote in the Legislature would be needed to amend any citizen-approved statute within its first five years.
Referendum O's critics call it an unwarranted intrusion on citizens' rights to petition the government. Proponents argue that it will reduce signature fraud and that hearings on proposals will help unravel confusing complexities that typically plague Colorado voters at the ballot box.
State Rep. Douglas Bruce , a Republican who earlier this year lost a primary bid to return to the Colorado General Assembly, is arguably Referendum O's most outspoken critic. He is also the author of TABOR.
"Referendum O is …a pure naked power grab by corrupt politicians," said Bruce. He quarrels with the idea that statutory changes are better than constitutional amendments and said finding volunteer solicitors is hard enough already.
"O is itself a constitutional amendment," he said. "It is saying constitutional amendments are bad, and we have too many, and so vote for this constitutional amendment. They don't want people to have a 'son-of-TABOR,' or ever go back and correct flagrant abuses by the corrupt judiciary or the power-mad legislatures."
Speaker of the Colorado House Andrew Romanoff (D), who will be leaving his post in January as a result of term limits - another initiative-driven idea approved by Colorado voters in 1996 - sees "O" differently.
"It ought to be harder to amend the constitution than to propose regular statutory laws," said Romanoff, who worked hand in hand with Democratic sponsors to get Referendum O onto the ballot. "Many people believe that the state constitution should be reserved for a higher set of principles. It ought to function as an operating manual, rather than a cookbook for government."
Direct democracy - the concept that citizens can decide for themselves by direct assembly without representative intermediaries - tends to find its strongest advocates in the West, notes Jennie Drage Bowser, a staff expert on the initiative process for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures . The initiative process took hold in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20 th century, when western territories - poised for statehood and heavily influenced by Progressives and the ethic of western independence - made initiatives a central part of their state constitutions.
A total of 24 states allow either citizen ballot initiatives or legislative referrals known as referendums onto the ballot. Only 14 states allow both. But states that permit initiatives generally don't raise the bar as high as Referendum O.
Bowser was part of a 2002 task force of NCSL staffers and outside experts who made recommendations to improve and regulate citizen initiatives. In addition to tighter controls to prevent concerns such as signature fraud, a primary recommendation to non-initiative states was: Don't start one.
"It is not a transparent, thoughtful process for making public policy," Bowser said. "The initiatives are largely drafted in private, there is minimal information for the voter and you don't know how a small slice of law might interact with policy as a whole. It is inflexible, and that may not be a good way to make policy."
NCSL policymakers never formally adopted the task force's recommendations.
Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington, D.C., an advocacy group for direct democracy, said two problems continue to plague the citizen initiative process: the failure of states to adequately regulate signature fraud, and the use of a state's citizen initiative process by outside special interests to push controversial social agendas.
"The citizen initiative is a voice," Wilfore said. "Sometimes it is the result of voters who feel they have no voice, that politicians are not representing their interests. But it can also be used to create more accountability."
While signature fraud is not directly addressed in Referendum O, its other provisions make profound changes that have left even Andrew Romanoff's crystal ball a bit cloudy on voter reaction.
"I can only predict this," Romanoff said. "If Referendum O passes, it will have many mothers and fathers. If it fails, 'O' will stand for 'Orphan.'"