Amending 2020 Ballot Signature Collection During COVID-19

Colorado is among eight states that enable the six most common forms of direct democracy, including the citizen initiative and referendum process. But if someone has ever approached you with a clipboard asking you for a signature, you know the current health crisis could create a risk factor. Colorado’s governor vowed to make electronic signatures legal for 2020 and achieved a court victory last week. But as KGNU’s Roz Brown reports the path forward is still murky because opponents vow to continue their fight against the temporary change.

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An executive order by Colorado Governor Jared Polis to make it easier for citizens collecting signatures for fall ballot measures was recently upheld by a Denver judge. The governor authorized temporary rules to allow signature collection by mail or, to avoid person-to-person signature collection during the COVID-19 pandemic. After finding in the governor’s favor, the group involved in the lawsuit suggested it might appeal to a higher court.

With the exception of the citizen initiative and referendum process, also known as direct democracy, America operates as a representative democracy, delegating most lawmaking to elected representatives. Boulder’s Evan Ravitz has been advocating for more direct democracy for 40 years. He’s glad the governor supports virtual signature collection this year, but doesn’t understand why he didn’t use his office to make it a permanent change.

“Regarding the legalities of online petitioning, Polis could have put the constitutional changes necessary to do this correctly on the ballot this year, instead he’s been sued twice for violating the constitution,” said Ravitz. “I think Jared is again, exhibiting fear of oil and gas, the real power behind the throne in Colorado.”

Like many Coloradans, Ravitz has not forgotten that Governor Polis once supported greasing the wheels for more direct democracy.

“And so, Jared reneged on the promises to help get online petitioning on the state level, just like he betrayed the hundreds of thousands of people who signed the two fracking setback petitions he sponsored and then abandoned in 2014,” said Ravitz.

Polis abandoned support for the two ballot initiatives after an eleventh-hour meeting with then-Governor John Hickenlooper, who was considered friendly to the fossil fuel industry. Ravitz says getting measures on a ballot in Colorado and elsewhere is typically expensive and difficult, unlike countries such as Switzerland.

“Paid petitioners – with all the incredible problems we’ve had over the years with them, almost don’t exist in Switzerland,” said Ravitz. “And these problems include harassing people for signatures, misrepresenting the content of the petition to get signatures, and more recently hired harassers to stop petitioners from collecting signatures, high-jacking petitions and holding them hostages, and companies being paid off to stop doing it – and all this stuff goes away with online petitions.”

In Boulder, the “Bedrooms are for People” campaign has urged city hall to make timely decisions on the issue. For years, Boulder has had an ordinance that only allows three unrelated people to share a house, not matter how many bedrooms the house has. If enough signatures are gathered, and voters approve, the city charter would be amended to allow all housing units to be occupied by the number of people equal to the number of bedrooms plus one. Chelsea Castellano spoke by phone during public comment at a recent Boulder City Council meeting.

“We wholeheartedly support Polis’ executive order, but we don’t yet have guidance on how and when Boulder will implement it – time is running out and only you have the power to make it happen,” said Castellano.

Charlotte Pitts went further, arguing the number of signatures needed for an initiative should be reduced based on the six weeks lost due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

“The number of signatures required should be prorated to reflect the amount of time a campaign had to safely collect signatures,” said Pitts.

Following her comments, Boulder City Attorney Tom Carr told council that’s not an option.

“You do not have the authority to do that, the number of signatures required is set in the charter and you cannot change that,” said Carr.

The city charter must be amended by voters. To that end, Council is considering whether to put a question on this year’s ballot that would waive some charter requirements during an emergency such as COVID-19 including altering signature collection thresholds or deadlines.

(Photo Credit: Wesley Tingey on Unsplash)