Backers have begun gathering signatures for a proposed state constitutional amendment that would specify only U.S. citizens can vote in Colorado elections — part of a national campaign to draw attention to the issue in 2020 and potentially goose conservative turnout in battleground states.
Although federal and state laws prohibit non-citizens from voting — and Colorado's constitution reads that "every citizen" can vote if they meet certain qualifications and is registered — the proposed amendment would change the state constitution to say that "only a citizen" who meets the qualifications and is registered can vote.
"This initiative seeks to clarify and codify the Colorado constitution by taking ambiguous, inclusive language and making it clear, exclusive language," George Athanasopoulos, a former Republican congressional nominee and one of the initiative's sponsors, told Colorado Politics.
Athanasopoulos said he's been raising concern about the constitution's wording since he ran against U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter in 2016 and considers it more urgent now that non-citizens are able to vote in some local elections in five states.
"It was an issue then. It remains an issue. We have an opportunity in 2020 to correct a problem," Athanasopoulos said. "If you're not a citizen and you vote now, that's currently against the law, but the Democrats may change the law tomorrow. That's why we're pushing for a constitutional change. If San Francisco is doing it today, that means Boulder is doing it tomorrow."
San Francisco and Chicago allow non-citizens to vote in school board elections, and non-citizens can vote in some municipal elections in Massachusetts, Vermont and Maryland.
There don't appear to be any efforts underway in Colorado to allow non-citizens to vote in local elections — a practice national advocates say encourages civic participation by taxpayers and parents, regardless of their citizenship status.
The proposed Colorado amendment, labeled Amendment 76, has been dubbed the "Citizen Voters Amendment" by its sponsors.
Supporters have until Nov. 12 to gather 124,632 valid signatures, including a specified number from each of Colorado's 35 Senate districts.
If the initiative makes the 2020 ballot, it will need 55% of the vote to pass under requirements for constitutional amendments approved by state voters in 2016.
"Based on the polling I know about, we not only have a chance, but we have a decisive advantage," said Athanasopoulos, who declined to share specific polling data with Colorado Politics.
Voters in North Dakota passed a nearly identical measure last year with 65.9% of the vote, and a group associated with the Colorado initiative has turned in a record 1.3 million petition signatures to put a similar question on Florida's 2020 ballot. (The Florida measure will have to pass muster with the state's supreme court if officials determine supporters collected a sufficient number of signatures.)
The same national group that's funded and helped organize the Florida effort will be involved with the Colorado petition drive, Athanasopoulos said, though he stressed that locals will be calling the shots.
"This is a national effort but it's a Colorado campaign," he said. "It was a meeting of the minds. I've been talking about this for years. The national organization has mobilized voters across the country. We decided now was a politically logical time to introduce this initiative."
Citizen Voters Inc., a national nonprofit which plans to spearhead and help finance ballot measures in as many as 14 states, is chaired by John Loudon, a former Missouri state senator with past ties to organizations that support President Donald Trump's campaign. Loudon and his wife, Gina, who live in West Palm Beach and belong to Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club, have been prominent figures in the push to put the question on Florida's ballot.
According to public records, the national group has poured $4.7 million into the Florida campaign, the Washington Post reported, but the ultimate source of the money is a mystery because the nonprofit isn't required to disclose its contributors.
The political committee supporting the Colorado measure registered with the Colorado secretary of state on July 26, with former state House Minority Leader Joe Stengel, a Denver attorney, listed as its registered agent.
Tim Mooney, a veteran Republican strategist based in Arizona and a listed contact for the Florida campaign, will be helping coordinate the petition drive in Colorado, Athanasopoulos said.
"The national effort broke records in Florida; I expect us to break records in Colorado, in terms of the number of signatures submitted," Athanasopoulos said. "I expect to smash signature records well before the deadline."
Mooney told the Washington Post that the group plans to wage campaigns in Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio and West Virginia, in addition to Florida and Colorado.
"It's a national effort that will obviously have additional benefits — it will help drive turnout, it will help elect candidates; it may be the decisive issue in many elections across the country this year," Athanasopoulos said. "If Republicans are smart, they will grab this issue and run with it. This polls like no other issue does. They need to take this issue, take it to every voter, tell them, 'I've signed the petition; why has my opponent not signed?'"
The Colorado Republican Party hasn't yet taken a position on the proposal, a spokesman said.
“The state party is gathering information and reviewing this measure," said LX Fangonilo, the Colorado GOP's executive director, through a spokesman.
A Democratic strategist called the campaign "a cynical but not unintelligent ploy," though he said he doubted it would help drive turnout much in Colorado, since its supporters will already be showing up to vote with "[President] Trump at the top of the ticket."
"It's a cynical way to try to divide Democratic candidates and get them on the record on an issue that sounds on its face like common sense, but if you think about it is more complicated," said the strategist, who discussed the politics of the ballot measure on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.
"Maybe their community wants the parents of DACA kids to vote in a school board election," he said, referring to the families of children brought into the country illegally at an early age. "Ironically, it's a bit of a local-control issue from people who are normally all about local control. It's about whether or not a community says folks who are not yet citizens can weigh in on issues in their community, even though they pay taxes, they participate, they want to be able to be part of the fabric of American life. It's much easier to say something hateful."