First they failed to make the ballot. Then one of them was on. Then maybe off again. Then back on.
It was all part of one of the wildest political weeks in recent memory, with more twists and turns than a winding mountain road.
While the dust was far from settled, by Thursday morning the Republican primary ballot for Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat had an additional candidate, and another vowed to appeal a ruling that kept him off the ballot.
Meanwhile, the candidate who qualified this week for the ballot called on the state’s top election official to resign, and an outside group charged that yet another candidate had accessed the primary ballot with fraudulent petition signatures.
It began Monday when two Republican running for the U.S. Senate held by Democrat Michael Bennet filed lawsuits asking a Denver District Court judge to order Secretary of State Wayne Williams to place them on the June 28 primary ballot, arguing that they submitted enough signatures despite an earlier ruling by Williams that they came up short.
Colorado Springs businessman Robert Blaha and former Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier were hoping to join three other GOP candidates in the primary. The two, filing jointly, obtained a court injunction on Friday ordering Williams to delay certifying a primary ballot until at least the end of the day Wednesday, in order to give them a chance to file their challenges.
In a ruling Thursday morning, Judge Elizabeth Starrs ordered Blaha onto the ballot — clarifying an order issued late Wednesday that left officials uncertain whether Blaha had qualified — saying he had enough signatures on his petition after determining hundreds had been ruled invalid for technical reasons involving petition circulators and notarizations that weren’t substantial enough to deny him access.
Blaha joins El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, former Colorado State University athletic director Jack Graham and former state Rep. Jon Keyser, R-Morrison, on the ballot.
The judge also ruled that Williams would have to delay certifying ballots to county clerks another four days, until Monday, in order to allow Frazier time to appeal her decision that he still came up short even after rehabilitating hundreds of signatures on his own petitions.
Williams has asked the judge to lift the most recent injunction and allow clerks to send their mail ballots to printers in order to meet a May 14 deadline to send them to military and overseas voters.
The midweek rulings came just days after Keyser successfully won a lawsuit to overturn an earlier ruling by the secretary of state’s office that he failed to submit enough signatures to make the primary ballot.
Glenn earned a spot at the state GOP assembly on April 9, and Graham turned in enough signatures — 1,500 from each of the state’s seven congressional districts — to qualify for the ballot.
“I’m thrilled to be on the ballot after a very long week,” Blaha said Thursday in a statement.
But on Wednesday evening — during a brief period when the secretary of state’s office had said Blaha made the ballot, before announcing that Starr’s ruling was unclear and officials weren’t sure if he had or not — Blaha called for Williams to resign, alleging “gross mishandling of the petition process.”
“Wayne Williams threw three people off the ballot for trivial, meaningless reasons, disregarding Colorado voters intent. He can’t be entrusted with Colorado elections. If you’re incompetent, there should be a price,” Blaha said. “There should be a full investigation into the validation process, outsourcing of decisions, and those involved. Mr. Williams was wrong on all fronts regarding ballot access.”
Echoing the outsider theme he’s made central to his campaign, Blaha concluded: “This is what the Permanent Political Class does: They get in power and feed at the public trough. They are often incompetent, and there is never a political price to be paid.”
Williams countered that he had strictly followed statutes and regulation — election law gives judges leeway that the secretary of state’s office doesn’t have to determine “substantial compliance,” his office maintains — and fired back at Blaha.
“Mr. Blaha seeks to blame others for his own campaign’s incompetence,” Williams said in a statement. “He needs to read the entire ruling from the judge, not just the conclusion. She wrote ‘the SOS appropriately reviewed the petitions submitted by Mr. Blaha, followed the applicable guidelines and then timely notified Mr. Blaha of the number of valid signatures and that the petition appeared insufficient.’ She also wrote, ‘In contesting the ‘Statement of Insufficiency’ from the SOS, Mr. Blaha makes no claim, and indeed there was no evidence presented, that the SOS failed to follow the Election Rules in any way.”
Even after it was clear he would appear on the ballot, Blaha wasn’t backing down.
“I spoke out so strongly regarding the secretary of state because this process is a perfect example of bureaucracy run amuck,” he said Thursday. “When I represent the people of our state as their next U.S. senator, Coloradans will see conservative leadership, a willingness to speak out, and boldness in my actions.”
Frazier, for his part, was back in court after failing to win an order putting him on the primary ballot — the judge heard the Blaha and Frazier challenges at the same hearing earlier in the week — and had won a ruling to keep Williams from finalizing the ballot.
“We’re appealing this afternoon’s decision,” said Frazier spokesman Joel DiGrado on Wednesday, adding that the campaign was confident that “there are more than enough signatures that we believe are in fact substantially compliant that would put us over the threshold to be on the ballot.”
Former Secretary of State Scott Gessler — Williams’s immediate predecessor in the office — is one of the attorneys handling Frazier’s appeal, along with former Deputy Attorney General Geoffrey Blue.
“Frankly, we believe (the secretary of state’s office) made administrative interpretations that could be unconstitutional and disenfranchising to the democratic process,” DiGrado continued. “We believe that our appeal will rectify these problems and the voices of more than 18,000 Coloradans will be heard. ”
In addition to arguing that petition signatures should be allowed despite minor discrepancies with circulator and notary documents, Frazier is also arguing that two rules governing the petition process are unconstitutional. Pointing to state and federal court decisions, Frazier alleges the requirement that only registered Colorado voters — affiliated with the same party as the candidate — may circulate petitions violates both the First and 14th amendments. He also argues that only allowing a voter to sign a single petition for the same office violates the same constitutional provisions by restricting and burdening both voters and candidates.
It’s that latter rule — that a voter’s signature can only count on a single petition for the same office — that led to claims by a liberal group that Keyser shouldn’t have qualified for the ballot, despite a judge’s ruling.
At a Capitol news conference on Tuesday, ProgressNow Colorado political director Alan Franklin said he had found six signatures that were counted on both Graham’s petitions and on Keyser’s, enough, Franklin charged, to call into question whether election officials had done a thorough enough job validating his petitions.
He called on Williams to “immediately rescind their statement of sufficiency for Jon Keyser,” in order to “revisit errors and potential fraud in the signature validation process.”
He also pointed to a signature found on both Graham’s and Keyser’s petitions that appeared to have been written by different people.
Littleton resident Pamela Niemczyk confirmed to Channel 7 that she had signed Graham’s petition but denied that it was her signature on Keyser’s. “It’s fraud. It’s definitely fraud,” she said.
An official with the secretary of state’s office said the opportunity had passed to reopen the Keyser validation, citing the judge’s ruling ordering him onto the ballot. As for potential fraudulent signatures, the spokeswoman said that would be a matter for the district attorney to handle.
Calling the ProgressNow press conference and charges a “flailing stunt,” a Keyser spokesman claimed it only underscored that Bennet is “scared” of Keyser.
“It’s embarrassing for Sen. Michael Bennet that he is so terrified of facing Jon Keyser in November he needs his sleazy liberal friends to pull such an ill-fated stunt,” said Matt Connelly in a statement issued before Franklin’s scheduled press conference. “The entire political world knows Jon Keyser will be on the ballot, and we appreciate ProgressNow’s invitation to highlight for conservatives across the country that Jon Keyser is Sen. Bennet’s worst nightmare.”