Councilmember Takes the Initiative to Propose Bill That Would Make Citizen Initiatives Tougher

The Denver City Council will vote on the bill tonight.
The Denver City Council will vote on the bill tonight. Brandon Marshall
Denver City Council was slated to vote today, August 15, on a bill that calls for amending the Denver City Charter to require that a specific percentage of the signatures required to get a citizens' initiative on the ballot be collected from each of the eleven council districts. But at the last second, it was pulled from the agenda.

If it had passed, the initiative would have landed on the November 8 Denver ballot. While citizens' initiatives for that election had to be approved earlier this month, Denver City Council can still put measures on the ballot this month.

But this proposal won't make the November ballot. It will now come before council on November 14 at the earliest.

Currently, campaigns pushing ballot initiatives must collect signatures from at least 2 percent of registered voters in the city, regardless of the district in which they live; that amounts to about 9,000 signatures. The proposal would have required about 180 valid signatures be collected from each district.

The controversial proposal came at the tail end of a process that started at the beginning of the year with the formation of the Ballot Access Modernization Committee, co-chaired by Councilmember Kendra Black.

The committee was formed to address issues that arose in the 2021 municipal election and came up with another election-related update that is also up for a vote tonight. Black presented a summary of the committee's work to the finance and governance committee on July 26; the proposal for requiring a percentage of signatures from each district was not agreed upon by the committee. It moving forward came as a big surprise to many involved in the election process after members of the BAM committee shared concerns on May 19, but didn't reach concensus.

The August 15 council meeting was the first time that many members of the public could comment on the proposal, and critics loudly criticized it as undemocratic, saying the same of the process to get it on the agenda. Groups in opposition include the ACLU of Colorado, CleanSlateNow Action, Colorado Common Cause, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Colorado Cross Disability Coalition, the Colorado Latino Leadership Advocacy and Research Organization, Metro Caring and New Era Colorado.

“I can't tell you how many times I saw that council, having worked there and since then, where they say, ‘This is the Denver way. The Denver way is to come to consensus, to work together in partnership,’ and this really just feels like it's being pushed through, and I've been disappointed,” says Ean Thomas Tafoya, a mayoral candidate who successfully got the Waste No More initiative on the November ballot and was on the BAM committee.
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Denver City Councilwoman Kendra Black is heading up the effort.
Owen Perkins, president of CleanSlateNow Action, which successfully passed the Fair Elections Act, a citizens' initiative that aimed to get big money out of Denver’s elections through public financing, says that passing this bill would undermine the rest of the BAM committee’s work. It would essentially allow one district to veto a measure that most people in the city might like if that district doesn’t provide enough signatures.

“It would be a real disservice to a transparent, open and long, involved, thoughtful process that they went through for the full package of reforms,” he says.

If the measure were to pass, it could limit grassroots campaigns from getting their initiatives on the ballot by creating extra hurdles and costs to successful petitions. The only groups included in the committee's discussions were Colorado Concern and the Downtown Denver Partnership, which are both business groups.

“It's essentially putting a monetary criteria in there to make the ballot,” Perkins says. “It will be just as easy for big money, well-funded initiatives, who spend millions of dollars on ballot initiatives.”

It wouldn't be so easy for groups with less money.

In fact, the Denver Office of the Clerk and Recorder does not have the technology in place to verify in real time which council district petition signers live in, so signature-gatherers wouldn't have an accurate gauge of their progress. Groups would have to go through each petition manually to verify the signature tally from each district, or pay another organization to do it. Currently, Perkins says, groups usually try to reach 13,500 signatures, about 150 percent of the required 9,000, to ensure that they have enough valid signatures; this would make them collect even more.

Perkins says he contacted companies that conduct petition circulation about the proposal, and they told him they would have to charge significantly more money than they currently do to accommodate such work.

“They would not recommend this change even though they’re voting against their financial interests,” he adds. “They think it's a horrible idea. ... At least one huge segment will profit from this, but they're against it because it seems to disenfranchise voters.”

He also asked proponents of the measure for data showing that there is a consistent disparity in terms of which districts get more signatures on petitions, and says that they haven’t been able to supply it. Besides, he notes, once an initiative makes the ballot, every elector in the city still gets to vote on it, so he's struggling to see what problem this solves.

Black’s July 26 presentation of the committee's work to the finance and governance committee explained the problem with citizens' initiatives as follows: “The processes are inconsistent and the timing is often condensed, which can limit public engagement, council discussion and analysis.”

But she definitely took the initiative in putting forward this proposal.

Ironically, if Denver City Council had passed the bill tonight and sent it to the November ballot, Denver electors would have been voting on a measure that hadn't gone through the process is trying to change, as well as the rest of the public engagement that goes along with that process.

“They're proposing something that will make it harder for everybody to access the ballot, but they're attempting to access the ballot without going through anything close to the process they're going to require for everyone else,” Perkins says.

Perkins and others who oppose the measure had encouraged people to weigh in by writing a letter to council or to sign up to comment at tonight’s meeting.

If the measure had gone forward, Tafoya says, advocacy groups would likely have joined together to run a no campaign against the proposal, another use of the already thin resources those organizations would rather devote to passing initiatives like Denver Deserves Sidewalks, Waste No More, or No Eviction Without Representation, all of which petitioned their way onto the ballot.

Black now says that so much information is going around, she wants time to pull together a stakeholder group to talk about the proposal.

Although Perkins says he's not guessing at motives, he suggests that the goal of the proposal was to make it harder to get a citizens' initiative on the ballot; requiring a proportion of votes from each district is a scapegoat that council can use to justify less ballot access.

“There seems to be some resistance to letting anyone other than council follow the process — the constitutional, charter-driven process and democracy-oriented process — that citizens can make an impact and have a voice and bring about change in their city,” Perkins concludes.

This story has been updated to reflect the action by Denver City Council at the August 15 meeting, and to clarify other points.
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
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