Citizen Voters Inc., a national political group backed by a former Republican lawmaker from Missouri, has poured $850,000 into a ballot initiative in Colorado as of September 30 that attempts to exclude non-citizens from possibly voting in local elections.
Proponents of Initiative 76 are gathering signatures to change the part of the Colorado Constitution that pertains to voter qualifications from "every citizen of the United States" to "only a citizen of the United States." Such a change, backers say, will eliminate the possibility that cities in Colorado could open up some of their elections to non-citizen voters.
Citizen Voters Inc. helped get a similar measure on the ballot in North Dakota in 2018; it passed with 66 percent of the vote. Florida will also vote on such an initiative in 2020 that Citizen Voters backed with millions of dollars.
The head of Citizen Voters is John Loudon, a former Missouri state senator and Trump supporter. Loudon and his wife are also members of Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club, according to the Washington Post. The article also notes that the source of the organization's money remains a mystery.
"The point of this initiative is, here in Colorado, we want the language to specify that only U.S. citizens may vote in our elections," says George Athanasopoulos, a backer of the initiative and former Republican congressional candidate in Colorado.
Athanasopoulos is confident that supporters will gather the 124,632 valid signatures needed by November 12 to make the ballot. "We will meet the requirement, of that I have no doubt," he says. If the initiative does get on the ballot, it will need 55 percent of the vote to pass, since it alters part of the state constitution.
Until very recently, 76 didn't have many big-name supporters. But a state GOP bigwig has thrown his weight behind it.
"The Citizen Voters Amendment is a common-sense measure to ensure that Coloradans' right to vote is fully protected by the state Constitution. The measure clarifies the original intent of the Constitution that only American citizens can vote in all Colorado elections. We fully support efforts to place this on the 2020 ballot, and expect voters will embrace its adoption," writes Congressman Ken Buck, who chairs the Colorado GOP, in a statement to Westword.
Athanasopoulos points to the fact that some cities, like Chicago and San Francisco, allow non-citizens to vote in local elections as a reason to push Initiative 76.
"If San Francisco is allowing non-citizens to vote, how far behind is Boulder?" Athanasopoulos asks. "The entire purpose of this initiative is to take ambiguous, inclusionary language and make it specific and exclusionary."
Colorado law precludes non-citizens from voting in state elections, and federal elections are also only open to American citizens. But according to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, no law or constitutional amendment currently exists that would prevent cities from allowing non-citizens to vote.
"Home-rule municipalities do have the ability to determine eligibility for their municipal elections," says Serena Woods, a spokesperson for the Colorado Secretary of State.
Some Colorado immigrant-rights advocates say they would be glad to see certain municipalities move forward with such a change. "We would be excited to see that parents, for example, who are green card holders, are able to vote for people to represent their school district or local city council," says Nicole Melaku, executive director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. "It’s just a way to build a truly representative democracy."
According to Mark Grueskin, a Colorado lawyer who supports Democratic causes, Initiative 76 wouldn't actually have much of an effect if it passes.
"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," says Grueskin, before listing the home rule section. "The Colorado Constitution gives home-rule municipalities sole authority over the qualifications and the registration of their voters."
For example, Boulder is a home-rule city, like Denver and many other large cities in the state, and would still be able to allow non-citizens to vote in local elections, Grueskin argues.
He says that the efforts of Citizen Voters to apply what's worked in other states to Colorado may be the initiative's downfall.
"That’s the problem when you have a homegrown measure that isn’t actually constructed with an understanding of state law. They probably took a model that works in other states. They took the language and said, 'Oh, jeez, if it works in state x or state y, it must work here,'" Grueskin says.
But Athanasopoulos insists that the slight alteration of the constitution's language called for by Initiative 76 is necessary to secure elections in Colorado. "It’s a starting point. You have to start somewhere. And the most logical place to start is the constitution," he says.
While he acknowledges that the initiative is being funded almost entirely by an out-of-state entity and that "there is a lot of money involved," Athanasopoulos maintains that it is "a Colorado effort with Colorado supporters, Colorado donors, meant to benefit the citizens of Colorado.”
However, critics like Melaku say Initiative 76 is nothing more than an effort to rally the Republican and Trump-supporting base.
"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," she says.