House committees on Thursday advanced a pair of measures that would enhance local governments’ ability to hold elections using ranked-choice voting and expand the prevalence of multilingual ballots.
The latter proposal, sponsored in the House by Thornton Democratic Rep. Yadira Caraveo, would lower the threshold at which counties are required to provide sample ballots in multiple languages. The bill is being carried in the Senate by Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, and Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City.
Under the Voting Rights Act, that threshold sits at over 10,000 voting age citizens or over than 5% of the total voting-age population in a county who speak a common language and do not speak English “very well” as defined by the American Community Survey.
Caraveo’s bill would lower those standards to 2,000 voting-age citizens or 2.5% of the total voting-age population in a county. That would broaden the number of counties required to provide multilingual ballots from four – Denver, Conejos, Costilla and Saguache – to 22.
The bill would also require the secretary of state’s office to set up a multilingual ballot hotline to provide access to translators by the November 2022 election.
Caraveo said the bill, which was also introduced last session and cleared committee before dying due to the COVID-19 shutdown, would personally impact her family. She said her parents spoke English conversationally, but not well enough to comprehend the complicated language ballot measures can occasionally employ.
“They are lucky enough that I can sit down with them every November and go through the ballot measures and explain to them what those measures are and then let them decide on how they're voting but that's not something that every person has available,” she said.
The bill won support from a number of advocacy groups and county clerks, including the top election officials in Denver, Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties. Adams County Clerk Josh Zygielbaum explained while his county was already moving to institute multilingual ballots, others might not because of costs.
“Once this bill goes into effect, hopefully it goes into effect, those costs will actually be reimbursable through the secretary of state's office, thereby making it easier for counties to actually afford from a cost perspective,” he said.
El Paso County Clerk Chuck Broerman also cited costs, but raised concerns the bill’s fiscal note that initially provides the secretary of state’s office $82,800 and $12,182 in subsequent years would not cover the tab. Broerman estimated at total closer to $350,000 would be needed and asked for the bill to be amended.
“Adding these additional services without having the funds to do so risks breaking the best system in the country,” he said.
Broerman offered the only testimony asking for an amendment to the bill. Eric Bergman of Colorado Counties, Inc. was scheduled to testify in opposition to the proposal but was not available.
The House State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee voted 6-3 to move the bill forward to the Appropriations Committee. Republican Rep. Rod Bockenfeld of Watkins joined the panel’s Democrats in supporting the proposal.
Meanwhile, the House Finance Committee voted to approve a proposal from Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, seeking to increase access to ranked-choice voting at the local level. The bill also features Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, and Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, as sponsors.
Cities are already allowed to use ranked-choice voting, but only three actually do. That’s because locals often rely on their county clerks to administer elections, and county clerks are required under state law to administer standard first-past-the-post elections. Kennedy’s bill would allow cities who opt into instant runoff elections to continue to have their county clerks administer their elections.
The proposal last month cleared the House State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, which Kennedy chairs, before winning the approval of the Finance Committee on Thursday. It now heads to the Appropriations Committee.