The "Citizenship Qualification of Electors" initiative, also known as Initiative 76, would change the verbiage in the constitution from "every citizen of the United States" may vote to "only a citizen of the United States." Backers of the initiative say the change would ban some cities from opening local elections to non-citizen voters. Non-citizens are already prevented from voting in state and federal elections.
The ballot question is being pushed by Citizen Voters Inc., a dark-money political action committee that's promoting similar initiatives nationwide. The group is run by former Missouri state lawmaker John Loudon, who has ties to Donald Trump. Based in Florida, Loudon's organization had poured $1.4 million into the Colorado Citizen Voters campaign committee, the ballot question's main backer, as of mid-November. Local supporters include House Minority Leader Patrick Neville and Congressman Ken Buck, who chairs the Colorado Republican Party.
Proponents say Initiative 76 is a commonsense fix to ensure that non-citizens don't vote in Colorado elections. Some cities, including Chicago and San Francisco, have allowed non-citizens to vote in certain local elections.
Home-rule municipalities in Colorado currently get to determine the qualifications of voters in their own elections, meaning that places like Boulder could allow non-citizens to vote in school board or city council elections, according to the Secretary of State's Office.
The initiative needs 55 percent to pass, which is required for a constitutional change. But even if it were to succeed, some lawyers question whether the switch will actually achieve its intended outcome.
"The proponents, if they were trying to limit what happens to municipal elections in the most substantial cities in Colorado, amended the wrong provision of the constitution," Mark Grueskin, a Denver lawyer who works on Democratic causes, previously told Westword. "The Colorado constitution gives home-rule municipalities sole authority over the qualifications and the registration of their voters." That means some cities could still pass laws to allow non-citizens to vote in local elections even if I-76 passes, Grueskin argues.
Ryan Call, a local Republican lawyer, takes a similar position.
"While I can understand the political motivations behind efforts to place such an initiative on the ballot to coincide with the upcoming presidential election, Initiative 76 proposes an amendment to Article VII, Section 1 of the Colorado Constitution, and if adopted it would have no effect on the ability of home-rule jurisdictions to permit non-citizens to vote in local elections in the future," Call wrote Westword in an email.
But George Athanasopolous, who ran for Congress in Colorado as a Republican and backs the initiative, says the simplistic language will appeal to a majority of voters.
"They bring up home rule, they bring up, 'Well, what about local jurisdictions where someone lives?' And they'll use anecdotal hypotheticals to illustrate their point. At the end of the day, the initiative is very simple. Voters can choose to agree or disagree with it. Seventy percent agree with this," Athanasopolous says, referring to internal polling on the ballot initiative.
During a November press conference, Neville said he was not sure whether the home-rule section of the Colorado constitution would negate Initiative 76.
"It’ll give us that ability to fight that out in court with some strong language backing it," Neville said.
The initiative has also drawn criticism from some who believe it's a dog whistle to Trump supporters.
"It’s sort of a last-ditch attempt to grasp at straws around this narrative that immigrant folks are going to go ahead and try to vote in our local elections when there’s no evidence that that has happened," Nicole Melaku, the former executive director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, previously told Westword.
During the November press conference, Neville rejected this allegation.
"This is something the [signature gatherers] truly believe in. They truly believe that only U.S. citizens should be voting in our elections, and that’s why they worked so tirelessly to collect over 200,000 signatures," the minority leader said.