Like clockwork, Colorado's county clerks on Thursday were awaiting a certified primary ballot from the Secretary of State's Office, telling them which candidates have qualified for the ballot the clerks will soon start sending out to voters — but the Secretary of State's Office was again pushing the deadline, since the ballot wasn't yet finalized.
As in previous years, candidates were in court, arguing that they had earned berths in the primary, even though the state's top election official had earlier determined they didn't gather enough signatures on their petitions.
This year's handful of cases involving top-ticket races — three Democrats running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Cory Gardner — however, haven't come close to the multitude of narrow escapes, sudden reversals and spine-tingling cliffhangers that filled the weeks approaching the ballot certification deadline in the 2016 Republican primary for Colorado's other U.S. Senate seat.
At times, it seemed nearly all the candidates in the crowded, high-stakes 2016 primary were busy scheduling court dates and plotting legal strategy, when they would have preferred to be schmoozing with voters and glad-handing potential contributors.
As it turned out, unlike this year, all of the top-ticket candidates who sued to appear in that primary succeeded, though not without some heartburn, sleepless nights and daunting legal fees.
At the end of a tangled series of courtroom escapades, when the county clerks had long ago put the first round of ballots in the mail to primary voters, a great hue and cry arose.
"We oughta do something about the petition process," said the shaken candidates and their supporters, who had just gone through the ordeal.
So far, lawmakers have nibbled around the edges, fiddling with a few petition requirements — following the 2016 election, for instance, the Secretary of State's Office has been verifying whether petition signatures match the John Hancocks in the voter file, rather than simply verifying that the name, address and party affiliation matched records — but haven't overhauled the petition process from top to bottom.
This year, due to problems encountered by petitioning candidates as the coronavirus pandemic forced restrictions on public gatherings and curtailed door-to-door canvasing, officials are looking into allowing ballot initiative campaigns to collect signatures electronically, which could be a step toward modernizing petition drives for candidates.
In 2016, the high-profile candidates who had to go to court to secure ballot slots were three of the Republicans running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Michael Bennet.
Two other Republicans had already qualified without a hitch.
Darryl Glenn, the conservative long shot, had been criss-crossing the state for more than a year before he delivered the speech of his life at the GOP state assembly in Colorado Springs. In an outcome that has earned a place in the state's political annals, the fiery orator won over enough delegates at the assembly to keep another dozen or so hopefuls off the primary ballot, including heavyweights like state Sen. Tim Neville and Glenn's fellow El Paso County commissioner Peg Littleton.
With 70% of the delegate vote, Glenn received top-line on the primary ballot, and he was soon joined by Jack Graham, the wealthy former NFL quarterback and athletics director for Colorado State University, who petitioned on without much difficulty.
The other three petitioning Republicans ran into some obstacles, and the primary line-up wasn't finalized until after the clerks had already sent out the first round of mail ballots — those destined for military and overseas voters, which typically go out about three weeks before ballots are sent to voters who live in Colorado.
That's because one of the candidates, former Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, had to ask a judge to put his name on the ballot while his case was still working its way through the court system. It's a request the judge obliged with one provision — that if Frazier lost his appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court, he would withdraw from the primary, and election officials wouldn't count any votes he received.
Weeks after ballots had been mailed to the state's far-flung voters, Frazier's circuitous path reached a conclusion, after the supreme court ruled that 49 of his signatures should be counted but sent another 51 signatures back to a Denver District Court judge to determine whether they should count, even though election officials had identified technical issues with the signatures. The next day, the lower court judge agreed that 40 of them passed muster and ordered Frazier on the ballot that already included his name.
A judge had earlier ruled that another GOP Senate candidate, Colorado Springs businessman Robert Blaha, made the ballot just before the deadline, though some confusion over the judge's ruling led to Blaha calling for then-Secretary of State Wayne Williams to resign, charging the Republican official with “gross mishandling of the petition process.”
Blaha, who tried to unseat U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn in a GOP primary four years earlier, tore into Williams for adhering to petition verification requirements spelled out in state statute and his office's rules.
"He can’t be entrusted with Colorado elections," Blaha thundered. "If you’re incompetent, there should be a price."
And in a trademark swipe at what he termed "the Permanent Political Class," Blaha charged: "They get in power and feed at the public trough. They are often incompetent, and there is never a political price to be paid.”
The third candidate whose signatures initially fell short had the easiest path back onto the ballot, though that was only the beginning of a series of mishaps and pratfalls involving his petition that eventually overwhelmed his campaign.
Former state Rep. Jon Keyser, R-Morrison, who resigned from the legislature shortly after declaring his candidacy at the beginning of the year, persuaded a judge to rehabilitate just 186 signatures from a single congressional district, giving the young former Air Force intelligence officer a spot in the primary. After reviewing Keyser's arguments, the judge ruled that a petition circulator hadn't updated his address in the state voter registration database after moving a few months earlier — a technical mistake the judge said shouldn't prevent the voters whose signatures he gathered from being counted.
"The Colorado Election Laws are designed, in part, to eliminate fraud. No fraud was present here," the judge wrote.
The fraud, as it happened, turned up later.
After a liberal group scoured Keyser's petitions and noticed that some of the signatures gathered by one of his circulators looked remarkably similar, the bad news just kept coming.
First, KMGH-TV political reporter Marshall Zelinger — he's since moved to KUSA-TV — verified that 10 Republican voters in Littleton and Southwest Denver said they hadn't signed Keyser's petition, even though their names and all their information were there in black and white.
Eventually it emerged that one of the paid circulators hired by Keyser — through a contractor, his campaign repeatedly pointed out — had forged numerous signatures, which led to her arrest on 34 felony forgery charges.
Then, another shocker hit the headlines — the same woman had somehow gathered the signature of a Broomfield woman who died more than a week before Keyser began circulating petitions.
Keyser came under fire from national outlets for a robotic performance in a videotaped interview with Zelinger — referring to him as "Mitchell," at one point mentioning his 165-pound Great Dane and repeating "I'm on the ballot" again and again.
A last-ditch lawsuit failed to dislodge Keyser from the ballot — the judge ruled the aggrieved voters had waited too long to file — but the early front-runner in the race never recovered.
Glenn went on to win the five-way primary by a fairly narrow margin and then lost to Bennet.