A Denver District Court judge on Wednesday let stand an executive order issued by Gov. Jared Polis that allows petition gatherers to collect signatures for ballot initiatives by mail or email during the coronavirus pandemic.
Judge Robert L. McGahey Jr. ruled against the business group Colorado Concern and University of Denver chancellor emeritus Dan Ritchie, who argued that Polis' order violates the state constitution, which says that signatures to put measures on the ballot must be gathered in person.
"The constitutional right of citizens to petition the government should not be sacrificed in a pandemic," Polis told Colorado Politics in a statement shortly after McGahey issued a 20-page ruling declining Colorado Concern and Ritchie's motion for a temporary restraining order.
"The court ruling today is a victory for the right of Coloradans to put forth ideas to be voted upon by their fellow Coloradans, an important part of our governance system that is open to people of all political persuasions to advance good ideas," Polis said.
Mike Kopp, president and CEO of Colorado Concern, said the organization is considering its next steps, which could include appealing the order to the Colorado Supreme Court.
"We respect the judge, but disagree with his conclusion, and will assess the situation and plan our next steps," Kopp said in a statement. "The Supreme Court has made it clear even very recently — safeguards protecting the integrity of ballot qualification processes are very much the law of the land even during extraordinary times like these. And well they should be — protecting the integrity of the citizens initiative process is in the clear interest of the state and every citizen during good times and bad."
Calling himself "a speed bump on the road to justice." McGahey acknowledged during a virtual court hearing on Friday that whichever side prevailed, the case was "undoubtedly" headed to the state's high court.
When he signed the order on May 15, Polis said that it "protects Coloradans’ constitutional right to shape their government through the initiative and referendum processes without risking their health or the health of others."
The governor also signed an order allowing unaffiliated candidates to gather signatures by mail and email to get on the ballot.
Attorneys for Colorado Concern and Ritchie argued during Friday's hearing that Polis lacks the authority to suspend the constitution's requirement that circulators must be physically present when voters sign petitions.
Protect Colorado, an industry organization that supports pro-oil and gas ballot measures, joined in the lawsuit "to ensure a fair and transparent election process," arguing that initiative backers have been collecting signatures under social-distancing and stay-at-home orders that Polis has recently begun to relax.
Dozens of business groups signed on to an amicus brief in support of Colorado Concern's case.
"As part of the coalition, we believe that electronic signature gathering would also be more susceptible to voter fraud, jeopardizing our state’s hard earned and well-managed election process," the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC said Wednesday in a statement, before McGahey's ruling was issued.
Added the chamber: "In addition, the coalition fears electronic signature gathering would lead to inequalities in parts of our state that have less access to internet, and with demographics who we know have more limited access to internet for various reasons, or are less comfortable with the technology required."
To get a measure on the Nov. 3 ballot, supporters must collect at least 124,632 valid signatures from registered voters by Aug. 3.