Colorado voters face onslaught of ballot questions
September 5, 2008
DENVER ” An election season in which even the highest office in the land doesn’t dominate campaigning?
It’s happening this year in Colorado, where a long list of hotly contested ballot questions ” including the nation’s first vote on declaring a fertilized egg a human being ” threatens to rival the tight presidential race.
Consider the 18 questions being put to Colorado, which could overtake California this year as a banner state for citizen initiatives. Voters will be asked not just to define when life begins, but also whether to tweak the nation’s pioneering Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which requires the state to return excess revenue to taxpayers.
There’s a proposal to ban affirmative action in state universities, a pack of workers’ rights measures and an initiative to raise the state income tax to help the disabled. Voters will even be asked whether the initiative process itself should be changed.
It’s a storm of questions that, coupled with the presidential contest and an open Senate seat, has officials warning of record-long lines and prolonged vote counts come Election Day.
Well before the Labor Day holiday, TV commercial breaks were jammed with ads arguing for or against certain initiatives. Some groups say they reserved their fall ad time in August for fear there won’t be enough slots on Colorado airwaves to handle the demand.
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A relatively low number of voter signatures needed to get something onto the ballot ” just 76,047 ” and the state’s relative parity among registered independents, Democrats and Republicans make Colorado a breeding ground for citizen initiatives, activists say.
“Colorado’s a huge stomping ground for initiatives,” said Manolo Gonzales-Estay, a campaign manager for two labor groups working against ballot questions they say could limit worker access to collective bargaining. “However things go in Colorado, you see them tested elsewhere.”
Getting national attention is a so-called “personhood” amendment asking voters to decide whether the state constitution should be changed to define a person as “any human being from the moment of fertilization.”
Supporters, who failed to get similar questions on other states’ ballots this year, say adoption of the personhood amendment would segue into banning abortion.
The proposed amendment “lays the foundation for saying, ‘We believe every human life deserves protection,'” said Kristi Burton, a 21-year-old law student from the tiny central Colorado town of Peyton who heads the effort.
Opponents make the same argument: Its approval would be tantamount to banning abortion.
“Colorado is a test balloon for the rest of the country on this,” said Crystal Clinkenbeard, spokeswoman for a coalition of groups, including Planned Parenthood, that plans to spend up to $2 million to advertise against the amendment.
That sum seems small compared with the $20 million or more union groups say they’re ready to spend against three proposed amendments, including one that would enable workers to opt out of unions in already-organized work sites.
Unions are promoting several amendments of their own, including a proposal to make it easier to hold CEOs criminally responsible for corporate fraud, an amendment to require a formal explanation before workers can be fired, and a requirement that businesses with more than 20 workers provide health insurance.
The campaigns, already in force with volunteers passing out fliers at summer parades and festivals, are making Colorado the nation’s labor battleground this year.
Elections officials are so worried about the extended ballot that they’re asking people to vote by mail so they won’t clog busy precincts poring over complicated initiatives. Secretary of State Mike Coffman warned that elections officials in some counties may set time limits on voting; this year’s Colorado caucuses produced a record turnout, and the same could happen come November.
“If you have such an incredibly long ballot, with so many questions to consider, it’s better to do it in the comfort of your home,” Coffman said. “We could be looking at an extremely high turnout.”
Activists concede that if Colorado remains a presidential tossup through November, they face a tough road getting voters to care about their ballot measures. Some voters may not even bother voting on amendments, said Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida who has studied Colorado’s history of citizen ballot initiatives. If voters care only about the presidential race, they’re free to make a choice in that race only and leave the rest of their ballots blank.
“People are selective in how they vote. They don’t vote on all the measures,” Smith said.
In 1912, Colorado petitioners were paid 3 cents a signature to qualify measures for the ballot. Their efforts produced a record this year won’t match: Voters had to sift through 32 ballot measures the first year they were allowed.