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Telluride Allows Non-Citizens to Vote, Amendment 76 Be Damned

Telluride could end up facing a legal challenge over its allowance of green card holders to vote.
Telluride could end up facing a legal challenge over its allowance of green card holders to vote.
Jon Solomon

Following the passage of Amendment 76, which changed Colorado Constitution language regarding voting eligibility from "every citizen of the United States" to "only a citizen of the United States," a town in southwest Colorado that already allows non-citizens to vote in local elections is feeling confident that it will be able to continue to do so.

"The Town of Telluride’s charter allows permanent resident aliens holding a valid permanent resident alien card to vote in Town of Telluride elections," says Tiffany Kavanaugh, clerk of Telluride. "As a home-rule municipality, we don’t believe Amendment 76 will impact our home-rule authority."

But the town's interpretation clashes with that of George Athanasopolous, a former Republican congressional candidate who worked to land Amendment 76 on the ballot, potentially setting up a showdown with Telluride.

"This requirement is now a constitutional dictate, and established case law clearly states that the Telluride town clerk is wrong. Her stated position that non-citizens can vote in local elections is now expressly illegal and a violation of her oath to uphold the law," Athanasopoulos says, adding that the clerk is "inviting litigation and the associated legal expenses her jurisdiction can ill afford."

However, Kavanaugh's take on Amendment 76, which was backed by an out-of-state political action committee that has been funding efforts to push carbon-copy initiatives in other states, tracks with the analysis of both Democratic and Republican lawyers in Colorado who have looked at the measure.

"The Colorado Constitution gives home-rule municipalities sole authority over the qualifications and the registration of their voters," says Mark Grueskin, a Denver lawyer who works on Democratic causes. And that means that Telluride could continue to allow non-citizens to vote, or another home-rule municipality could alter its election rules to allow non-citizens to vote.

And Ryan Call, a Republican lawyer, agrees. Before the election, he told Westword: "While I can understand the political motivations behind efforts to place such an initiative on the ballot to coincide with the upcoming presidential election, [Amendment] 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."

Athanasopoulos contends that Grueskin and Call are both wrong. "If they're so convinced that they're right, let them file suit and see how their legal arguments stand against the will of Colorado's voters," he suggests.

The passage of Amendment 76, which was approved by 63 percent of Colorado's voters, will have little effect on most elections in Colorado. It's already a requirement that residents of the state be U.S. citizens in order to vote in either federal or statewide elections; home-rule municipalities have only been able to allow non-citizens to vote in local elections. However, immigrant-rights advocates believe the amendment's passage may lead to confusion among immigrants who have become U.S. citizens.

"Many immigrant voters, who can rightfully participate in our democracy because they have gained their citizenship, could be dissuaded from using their voting rights if Amendment 76 passes," Raquel Lane-Arellano, policy director for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition Action Fund, said in a statement issued before the November 3 election. "Amendment 76 is a blatant and racist attack against Colorado immigrants with a clear attempt to draw out anti-immigrant voters.”

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Backers of the measure rejected that claim; they framed 76 as a commonsense clarification of what they view as ambiguous constitutional language.

Efforts to get 76 on the ballot were backed by Citizen Voters Inc., a dark-money political action committee that has promoted similar measures across the country. North Dakota voters had previously passed such a measure; voters in Florida and Alabama approved identical measures in the most recent election. Citizen Voters Inc. is run by former Missouri state lawmaker John Loudon, who has ties to Donald Trump. The PAC poured $1.4 million into the campaign for 76.

The proposal also got support from some prominent Republicans in Colorado, including Congressman Ken Buck and State Representative Patrick Neville, who will soon finish his term as House Minority Leader. At a November 2019 press conference during which Neville and other supporters dropped off signed petitions at the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, Neville said that he wasn't sure whether the home-rule section of the Colorado Constitution would negate 76.

"It’ll give us that ability to fight that out in court, with some strong language backing it," Neville said.

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