Colorado drafts emergency rules to salvage recall elections

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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More than two-dozen people huddled at a public hearing of Colorado’s secretary of state to help put back on track a pair of historic recall elections that were all but derailed by a recent court ruling.

A conflict between the state’s constitution and a newly passed election reform law has scuttled plans to conduct the vote entirely by mail, leaving election officials with less than a month to come up with a plan for in-person voting that’s fair to all registered voters.

“It’s calling for our clerks to revisit a model of voting that hasn’t been used in more than a decade,” said Kristie Milligan, who represents the Citizens Project, an organization that works on voter-access issues.

The recalls have been the source of much drama since opponents of Democratic state Sens. John Morse and Angela Giron turned in enough valid signatures to give voters the chance to kick them out of office. Both were targeted for supporting new gun control legislation and the lawmakers fought back, filing identical challenges to the validity of the petitions. Failing that, they appealed to a judge, who also refused to stop the process.

But with less than a month remaining before the Sept. 10 elections, the Libertarian Party pointed out an irreconcilable conflict between timelines in the Colorado Constitution and in a newly passed election reform law.

The election law mandates that recall elections be conducted by mail-in ballot, giving potential candidates 10 days after the date of the recall election had been set to petition their names onto the ballot.

The Constitution, however, allows candidates to submit petitions to appeal on the ballot up to 15 days before the election. That timetable makes it impossible to conduct a mail-only vote, because county clerks don’t have time to verify signatures, allow time for challenges to the signatures, print ballots, and put them in the mail.

Before the conflict was noticed, El Paso County, which is running the recall election against Morse, already printed and mailed ballots to 645 people, including military voters serving overseas. Pueblo County, where Giron is fighting for her seat, already mailed out 279 ballots.

Libertarians sued, saying they weren’t allowed access to the ballot because they hadn’t met the deadline dictated by the new election law, arguing that the timeline in the Constitution should take precedent. A district court judge agreed, leading to a wholesale effort to plan the elections from scratch, minus most mail-in ballots.

The secretary of state’s office hastily compiled emergency rules and its staff was still typing them up less than an hour before the public meeting.

The draft rules include election details that are largely anachronistic as voting by mail becomes more widespread. They include the number and location of polling places; specifics about election watchers and judges; and, perhaps most critically, how overseas military voters — who’ve already had ballots mailed that will likely be incomplete — can cast their votes.

The draft rules say those voters will be notified that their ballots are incomplete and refer them to election websites for the complete list of candidates so they can write in the candidate of their choice. Military voters can also opt to vote by email balloting, a process that Wayne Williams, the El Paso County clerk, said has proved popular with military voters in the past.

Military voters will be sent new mail ballots with all the candidates’ names, but they can also return the first ballots that were mailed to them. Even though they may be incomplete, they will be counted.

Military mail-in ballots must be postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day for them to count.

In a statement posted on his agency’s website, Secretary of State Scott Gessler admitted that “this recall process has had more curve balls than a baseball game.”

Democrats have appealed the district court decision to the state supreme court, but the high court declined to hear the case late Thursday.

The emergency rules could be adopted as early as Friday.

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