State Assembly Conejos

In this file photo, delegates to the Colorado Republican Party's state assembly listen to a speech on April 4, 2018, at the CU Events Center in Boulder.

Officials with Colorado's Democratic and Republican state parties are working with legislators to enable the parties to hold assemblies and conventions using alternative methods as a rapidly moving viral outbreak forces cancellation of large gatherings, Colorado Politics has learned.

"The facts might change tomorrow," said Morgan Carroll, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party. "The bottom line I would say is that we are pursuing every option that we possibly can through the legislature to make sure that we have all of our options."

As it stands, state law and party rules don't allow the parties to convene nominating assemblies online or let delegates cast ballots remotely, raising concerns among party officials that they could be unable to nominate candidates if delegates stay home or authorities ban crowded events, as has happened amid a growing novel coronavirus outbreak.

Following Saturday's precinct caucuses, the two major parties are embarking on a heavy six-week schedule of assemblies and conventions at the county, district and state level to vote candidates onto the June primary ballot and nominate delegates to this summer's national conventions.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency in Colorado to respond to the spread of the virus as health officials reported the number of active cases in the state rose to 17.

The number of events canceled due to concern about spreading the virus increased Tuesday, as Denver announced it won't hold its iconic St. Patrick's Day Parade and Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden scrapped plans to hold campaign rallies, and numerous universities said they would move to online instruction for the remainder of the spring semester. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine called for limiting large gatherings, including a request that sporting events take place without spectators.

"How do we make sure people have a voice and we can put people on the ballot without public health concerns?" Carroll said. "But we also need to keep the wheels of democracy going forward as much as we can." 

State law offers candidates two paths to the ballot — gathering a sufficient number of signatures on nominating petitions or winning the support of enough delegates at assemblies. The deadline to turn in petitions is March 17, limiting the ability of candidates to switch to that route if parties are forced to cancel assemblies or enough delegates don't attend to achieve a quorum necessary to conduct business.

"We need to first figure out what’s possible and then decide what we want to do," Carroll said. "We lack the full slate of options that we would like to have."

 Those options could include allowing for extensive use of proxy votes, or even postponing or canceling in-person assemblies and instead conducting party business by mail, online or using other methods, she said.

"There’s such a thing as under-reacting and such a thing as over-reacting, and we want to be surgically reacting," she said."It is a worst-case scenario to say we have cancellation, but when we say we want to have all options, that is an option."

The executive director of the state GOP told party members Tuesday in an email that officials have been in contact with the Secretary of State's Office and legislative leaders to determine what the unfolding crisis could mean for the assembly process.

"We, along with our Democrat counterparts, have requested a meeting with the (secretary of state) and governor to discuss further how we can best conduct our duty under state law to designate candidates to the primary election ballot," said Lx Fangonilo. "Our duty to place our Republican candidates on the ballot is vitally important. For the time being — we are asking that you continue to proceed as normal with your local assembly planning and gathering."

He added: "This said, every precaution, in accordance with the bylaws, should be made during these meetings to accommodate those who are unable to attend and protect the health of those who are in attendance."

Party bylaws are governed by a mix of state statutes and national party rules, complicating efforts to change them quickly in reaction to something like a global pandemic.

The two parties' bylaws differ in some particulars. The Democrats let each assembly delegate carry one proxy vote, for instance, potentially allowing ill or at-risk individuals to stay home, while the Republicans don't currently permit proxy voting at assemblies.

"We want to remind everybody that if you are immunocompromised or are in a category at risk, if you have symptoms or have been around people with symptoms, you can send a proxy," Carroll said. "Keep yourself safe, keep everybody safe."

"We want (the legislature) to give us an ability to extend or waive deadlines and to explicitly authorize the parties to do electronic voting, remote voting or mail balloting. I want all three, because there are some logistics," Carroll said, noting that smaller, rural counties might want to let delegates vote by mail, while other counties could conduct their assemblies using videoconferencing or other technology.

"This isn’t going to be a one size fits all — it could be Zoom, Webinar or Google Forms," she said. "We might need to meet people partly where they’re at and help people."

Carroll said the state Democrats will provide technological assistance to county party officials but acknowledged that clearing the way to change the rules doesn't mean it'll be easy to implement non-traditional assemblies in what could amount to a matter of days.

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