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Amendment 65: Colorado's push for campaign-finance limits wins in landslide

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Colorado voters -- and even small children -- were exposed to a seemingly absurd amount of political advertising this year in a battleground state that wound up not being a key to President Barack Obama's victory.

Perhaps that is why residents overwhelmingly passed the state's other measure on the ballot, Amendment 65, a mostly symbolic initiative that calls for campaign-finance limits.

Amendment 65, which made it onto the ballot in September, calls on the Colorado Congressional Delegation to support campaign-finance limits. It doesn't really get more specific than that or yield any actual changes in Colorado at this time.

Why not? Supporters of campaign finance reform can't actually push changes at the state level, largely due to the infamous 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which held that under the First Amendment of the federal constitution, government could not restrict independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. In order to implement some kind of limit on spending, then, a constitutional amendment would have to be ratified.

Still, Amendment 65 supporters say the measure can have a tangible impact. They believe its passage is a strong statement from Colorado voters, as well as a useful tool for good-government groups to pressure the Colorado delegation to take up this cause and push forward a federal amendment. That's a first step in a major effort for reform, they say.

According to the latest results from the Secretary of State's office, Amendment 65 passed with support from 73.83 percent of residents, with only 26.17 voting no. Across the state, that accounts for 1,677,145 residents voting yes and only 594,455 voting no (with, as of this writing, 55 of 64 counties reporting).

But what is more striking than the raw numbers is its broad support statewide. It appears to have passed by wide margins in every Colorado county.

"It's super exciting. Landslide, I think, is an understatement," says Danny Katz, director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, or CoPIRG, a statewide advocacy group and one of the proponents of the amendment. "I don't think there's a single county below 60 percent -- even the most conservative counties."

The results speak for themselves, he says. "It doesn't matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican. It doesn't matter if you live in a city or on a farm. Everonye can agree, in one of the most divisive elections we've seen, we've got to get big money out of our elections.... Everyone can come together on this particular issue."

CoPIRG was a proponent of this measure alongside Colorado Common Cause, with support from Colorado Fair Share Alliance, which helped collect signatures.

Continue for more details on the measure and political spending in Colorado. While the state's marijuana amendment is getting a lot of national attention, supporters hope 65 will have an influence federally. And it's a particularly relevant measure in Colorado, given the extreme amount of spending that hit this swing state. Based on the latest data available from the Washington Post's tracker, a whopping $71 million was spent on television advertisements in the state for the presidential race.

A recent CoPIRG report found that outside spending organizations reported $1.11 billion in spending through the final 2012 cycle deadline -- already a 200 percent increase over total 2008 outside spending.

To understand the magnitude of this influence, the report points out that the spending of large donors has effectively wiped out the impact of small donors in fundraising. The two presidential campaigns combined have reported raising $394.4 million from small donors who gave less than $200 apiece, accounting for at least 1,972,000 individuals. But just 629 so-called "mega-donors" contributed $100,000 or more each, adding up to $393.4 million in super PAC donations.

"That really shows that there's a problem," Katz says. "It certainly drowns out the voice of small donors."

Meaningful reforms could be a long ways off. Even if the Colorado delegation were to bring forward a federal amendment, there would have to be a great deal of support nationwide to lead to it being adopted. Additionally, even if such a proposal passed, it wouldn't actually set campaign finance limitations nationally. Rather, it would open up the door for states to legislate their own regulations, which they currently cannot do.

Nine other states have passed similar measures in various forms, Katz says, noting that hundreds of cities have also passed symbolic resolutions of support as well.

"We hope that this Colorado measure acts as a catalyst," he says. "For the first time, it really shows that it doesn't matter where you come from.... This is a problem."

He adds, "As an organization that is constantly lobbying our elected officials...one of the things that we're always asked is, 'Well, what do my constituents think?'" he says. "Talk about a powerful way to demonstrate to these elected officials what their constituents think.... They want to see action.... The next step is holding them accountable."

More from our Politics archive: "Scott Gessler: Officials probably didn't catch all fraudulent voters before election"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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