After months of heated rhetoric and legal challenges, Coloradans in two contested state Senate districts are voting Tuesday on whether to retain or kick out two Democratic lawmakers who helped pass the state’s tough new gun laws.
But the elections — the first in state history aimed at legislators — have long been about more than just the fates of Sens. John Morse and Angela Giron. The showdown is also a referendum on gun-control policy, in Colorado and elsewhere.
Morse and Giron are being recalled because they supported Colorado’s tough new gun-control laws, which include limits on magazine size and universal background checks, among other measures.
But what began as localized anger expressed through grassroots movements soon morphed into a national proxy fight between well-funded organizations on both sides of the gun-control debate.
Although Morse and Giron have complained about “outside interests” involving themselves in local politics, they’ve benefitted from the deep pockets of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has contributed at least $350,000 to efforts to keep them in office. Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, advocates for strict restrictions on firearm ownership and it organized a memorial for the victims of gun violence in Denver on the anniversary of the Aurora theater shooting.
The lawmakers’ opponents also have their wealthy backers, having been shored up with large contributions from the National Rifle Association.
More than $2 million has already been spent on the election, The New York Times reports, with much more expected once final campaign finance reports are filed.
Morse and Giron took every legal option to prevent the vote happening Tuesday in El Paso and Pueblo counties. After the recall groups submitted enough signatures to trigger the elections, both challenged the validity of the petitions with the secretary of state, saying they lacked particular verbiage called for in the Colorado Constitution.
Losing that battle, they then took the matter to court, where they also failed to prevent the election.
The Libertarian Party then threw an unexpected wrench into the gears by suing the state to allow more time to gather signatures to get a candidate onto the ballot in Morse’s race. The suit pointed out a glaring conflict between the Colorado Constitution and a newly passed election reform law that had been championed by Democrats — and sponsored by Giron.
The new law required potential candidates to submit signatures for the ballot within 10 days after the governor set the election date. But the Constitution says candidates have until 15 days before the election to turn in petitions.
A judge ruled in favor of the Libertarian Party — which ultimately failed to muster enough signatures for its candidate — and in the process scuttled the ability to conduct the vote by mail — another requirement of the new law. With the shorter deadline to qualify for the ballot, county clerks simply didn’t have enough time to verify signatures, print ballots and put them in the mail.
That development put county clerks into a mad rush to organize an in-person election that requires most voters to show up at voting centers to cast their ballots. Both counties opened the centers several days ago to allow for early voting.
Early results show more Republicans casting a vote in Morse’s race. Giron’s district — heavily Democratic — has seen more Democrats than Republicans voting early.
There are still questions as to whether the elections will go smoothly. Yet another provision of the new election law allows voters to register as late as Election Day and shortens the period of time a resident must have lived in Colorado prior to the election in order to participate.
That, Republicans say, opens the door to vote fraud: Since clerks have no time to verify whether a voter truly lives in the district, they must take the word of new arrivals that they intend to make the district their permanent home.
To demonstrate how easy it is to vote in the election no matter where one currently lives in Colorado, Independence Institute President Jon Caldera changed his registration from Boulder to El Paso County and cast a blank ballot in the Morse election.
In order to legally vote, he needed only to provide a valid address in Morse’s district — he said he’s renting a room at a friend’s house — and declare that he intends to make it his permanent home.
Polls are open until 7 p.m. Tuesday. County clerks are expecting a large turnout.
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