Voter suppression is a tactic, not a strategy. It may work over the short term, for a few election cycles, but any political party that believes its grasp on power is dependent on preventing the "wrong people" from casting ballots is destined for the dustbin of history. The entire premise of our American experiment is that the most valuable of all our liberties is the right to vote. Just as better decisions are made when there are more people at the table, a democracy is most likely to produce a government its voters can trust when it responds to the expressed preferences of the majority. Attracting citizen support, not muzzling opposition, is the honorable route to a functioning government.
This does not imply everyone should be forced to vote at the risk of a fine, as a handful of democracies require. When Americans choose to waive their constitutional right to be heard, they also waive their right to complain. So be it. Nonetheless, the exercise of this right should be as easy and accessible as humanly feasible. Mail ballots further this goal and accommodate the realities of modern life. Mail fraud is virtually non-existent. The state of Florida just completed an 18-month investigation in search of illegal voters and came up empty.
Closer to home, the motive behind recent lawsuits challenging Gov. Polis’ executive order authorizing remote and electronic signature gathering procedures for use this summer by proponents of 2020 citizen initiatives deserve our suspicion. Appearing in court last week, attorneys for Colorado Concern claimed Colorado’s governor does not possess the requisite legal authority to replace existing law with a substitute procedure. What is the purpose of emergency powers if they fail to encompass protection of the right to petition our government? The citizen initiative was included in the Colorado constitution as a mechanism that empowers the people to disrupt the legislative process — to force changes on a system prone to abject subservience before money and special interests.
Suspending this privilege during an acknowledged public health emergency, merely because existing law fails to anticipate such a circumstance, is to get our priorities backwards. Placing Dan Ritchie, the former president of the University of Denver and prominent supporter of several previous campaigns for expanded education funding initiatives, was a stroke of genius. The genial, avuncular Ritchie’s admonition that this is not the time to advance changes flies in the face of a pandemic which has surfaced overwhelming evidence that, in fact, much needs to change. Uncertainty is the bane of business leaders so it should come as no surprise they are using Colorado Concern to forestall any tampering with the state’s tax structure.
There has been an ongoing, concerted campaign to restrain the placement of constitutional and statutory initiatives on the ballot for nearly three decades, largely traceable to the approval of the TABOR Amendment in 1992. First, courts ruled that paid signature gathering should be allowed, overturning the previous all-volunteer requirement. This decision favors special interests willing to purchase ballot access, while creating a hurdle for genuine, grassroots campaigns. Then, in a spectacularly dim-witted move, the legislature asked voters to limit future ballot questions to a "single subject." Not only must reforms often coordinate changes in related statutes, but, for many years, it was believed this restraint prevented the repeal of entire sections from the constitution. Most recently, quota requirements were imposed on the geographic distribution of signatures collected by petitioners and a super-majority threshold was established for approval of constitutional amendments, further complicating the process.
As proof that a stopped watch reports the correct time twice daily, Jon Caldara at the Independence Institute has loudly resisted the growing burdens placed on the petition process. His claims that citizen power should never be limited went largely ignored. Social and liberal advocacy organizations chose to side with the business community in crafting the handcuffs that now bedevil them. We have to presume opponents of remote and electronic signature gathering suspect it will prove easier to place questions on the ballot. There isn’t a scintilla of evidence to support that theory. It may well prove more expensive to identify, notify and then secure signatures. Either way, there is no threat of an avalanche of issues on the 2020 ballot as only a few questions have successfully qualified to solicit them.
As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed, states are, “…the laboratories of democracy.” Colorado courts should bless this experiment. Otherwise, many citizens will be denied a right guaranteed to them, not through lack of effort, but because a virus disrupted our lives in 2020. If electronic registration goes well the next Legislature just might want to suggest voters replace the current pen and ink mechanics with a 21st century, on-line alternative.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former legislator. He can be reached at email@example.com.