There Is One Possible Downside to the Massive Voter Turnout in Colorado

Voter participation is always a good thing. But if you're trying to get an initiative on the ballot in Colorado in the future, the huge voter turnout during the midterm elections will make your life more difficult.

For any citizen-backed statewide initiative to make a ballot in Colorado, the state constitution requires signatures from "at least 5 percent of the total number of votes cast for all candidates for the office of secretary of state at the previous general election." Five percent of the 2,492,635 votes cast in the 2018 secretary of state election means that 124,632 signatures will be needed to get something on the ballot, a significant uptick from the 98,492 needed for the 2018 cycle, which was based on the 2014 secretary of state election.

If we're doing our math right, more than 26,000 additional signatures will be required for future initiatives to make the ballot, all thanks to an uptick in voting this year — the second-highest turnout in the U.S. during the midterms, thankyouverymuch.

Think of it this way: That 124,632 is nearly the populations of Golden and Boulder combined. Imagine stopping that many people on the street.

"It's a higher bar that will make it more expensive and somewhat more difficult to gather signatures, but I don't expect it to limit Coloradans' love affair with the initiative process," says Curtis Hubbard of OnSight Public Affairs, whose group has handled several high-profile amendment and ballot campaigns in recent election cycles. "Even under the existing threshold, well-run campaigns are trying to validate signatures as they go and are turning in considerably more — sometimes on the order of 100 percent more — signatures than necessary as a fail-safe.

"We've had to do it in previous elections, where we worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

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"That said, grassroots campaigns that may not have the resources to pay for professional signature-gatherers or to validate will want to get a much earlier start in the process."

There are already signs that the increase in signatures isn't stopping people from pursuing ballot initiatives. As of this week, 22 initiatives had been filed with the Legislative Council staff, an indication that there will be plenty of ballots up for debate in 2019 and beyond.

It's also not the first time in recent years that it's become significantly more complicated for initiatives to get on the ballot. After Amendment 71 passed in 2016, signature gatherers were required to not only comply with the 5 percent rule, but they also had to gather at least 2 percent of the signatures in each of Colorado's 35 state Senate seats, an additional exercise in geography as well as collecting tens of thousands of John Hancocks.

None of that stopped Coloradans from contemplating a healthy list of questions this year. In fact, our 2018 ballots were the longest in the country.

It's not just signature gatherers who will have more work. The secretary of state's office, which verifies signatures, will likely have to bolster its staff.

"We might have to go to a third shift," says Joel Albin, the ballot access manager for the Colorado Secretary of State's Office. "We've had to do it in previous elections, where we worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

This year, the office got a sneak peek at what that future workload might look like. The three constitutional amendments that made it to the November ballot (73, 74 and 75, which all failed) all would have passed the new guidelines because they submitted more than 130,000 verified signatures.

"Is this going to discourage anybody from going forward with a petition? My guess is probably not," Albin says.
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Chris Bianchi is a Westword contributor interested in politics.
Contact: Chris Bianchi