This Colorado amendment would take power away from voters

Amendment 71 is a disaster for democracy, opponents say.

A motorist pulls up to hand off her ballot as voters drop off their ballots in the primary election at a drive-in site outside the city’s election commission headquarters Tuesday, June 28, 2016, in Denver. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
A motorist pulls up to hand off her ballot as voters drop off their ballots in the primary election at a drive-in site outside the city’s election commission headquarters Tuesday, June 28, 2016, in Denver. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Zalubowski

A state constitutional amendment on Tuesday’s ballot will give Coloradans an opportunity to make it much harder for voters to change their laws.

Amendment 71 — known as “Raise the Bar” — would mean that in order to get an amendment on future ballots, 2 percent of voters in each of the state’s 35 senate districts would have to sign a petition. In addition, it would increase the threshold for passing a constitutional amendment from 50 percent to 55 percent.

The amendment is being backed primarily by business interests, including a massive cash infusion from the oil and gas industry.

Opponents say that passing Raise the Bar will make it nearly impossible for citizen-led initiatives to get on the ballot. Colorado is characterized by widely divergent districts. A policy popular in deeply red Colorado Springs would have trouble gaining 2 percent of voters’ signatures in liberal Boulder, for instance, and vice-versa.

“One part of the state could hold veto power over the rest of the state,” said Jessica Goad, communications director for Conservation Colorado. “There are so many issues where this could really stymie changes.”

One of those issues is oil and gas regulation.

A pair of proposed amendments that would have restricted oil and gas development in the state narrowly missed garnering enough signatures to appear on the ballot this year. Under the rules proposed by Amendment 71, they would be virtually impossible to mount.

One of the amendments sought to keep oil and gas operations away from schools. The other would have allowed cities and municipalities to set oil and gas regulations.

Of the $4.8 million supporting the amendment, $3.7 million has come from the oil and gas industry, according to state financial data provided to ThinkProgress by Conservation Colorado.

Opposition has brought together a wide swath of public policy groups in the state.

It’s “the odd bedfellows coalition — folks from the far left and the far right and everyone in between,” Goad said.

The Humane Society, for instance, is opposed to Amendment 71. The Humane Society has successfully used the constitutional amendment process to stop some bear hunting practices. The group turned to the constitutional amendment process after a popular initiative struggled against the state legislature.

In Colorado, voters can enact laws either through the constitutional amendment process or through a statutory process. But, at present, there is nothing that prohibits the state legislature from overturning statutory changes that voters support. In a statement on the Humane Society’s website, it outlines the problems with taking statutory route.

“When we advanced a [statutory] ballot measure in Colorado more than two decades ago to stop spring bear hunting and the unsporting and reckless practices of bear baiting and hounding,” the Humane Society says. “Lawmakers immediately tried to overturn it, even though we got an astonishing 70 percent of the vote.”

The right-wing Independence Institute is also opposing Amendment 71, on similar grounds.

“Laws are how the legislature tells the people what to do, but the constitution is how the people tell the legislature what to do,” former Colorado Senate President John Andrews (R) said in a statement. “The legislative power belongs to the people, except as some of it is delegated to the General Assembly. Amendment 71 stands that on its head.”

Many in Colorado agree that the state’s amendment process needs to be amended — but that this isn’t the way. The Denver Post, which supports making the constitutional amendment process more stringent, came out against Amendment 71, saying it “ goes too far.”

Gathering that amount of signatures across all the state’s districts would be a “Herculean effort,” the paper notes. But, perhaps more importantly, it would also be an expensive effort. The expense of a signature campaign across the entire state would make it impossible for most grassroots efforts to effectively canvass.

And while amending the state constitution isn’t even an option in many places, it’s important to preserve this right in Colorado, opponents of the amendment say. The constitutional amendment process is how Colorado became a leader on marijuana legalization, raised the minimum wage, and instituted a first-in-the-nation renewable energy standard. Voters also banned gay marriage and made parental notification a prerequisite for abortion.

“The notion that citizens can amend their laws is both surprising and unique, especially to folks on the East Coast,” Goad said. “[But] this is a very ingrained right that we feel like we have as Westerners: We are able to keep regulators and politicians in check.”

With only a day to go before the election, it’s not clear whether Amendment 71 will garner the votes it needs to pass. A late September poll found that while only 47 percent of voters supported the measure, 15 percent were still undecided.

Meanwhile, the interests behind the amendment are pushing hard for last-minute support. Goad sent ThinkProgress several examples from around the state of a flyer that purports to indicate local support for Amendment 71.

Mailers supporting Amendment 71 appear to indicate local support, but most of the funding behind the initiative comes from business interests. CREDIT: Conservation Colorado
Mailers supporting Amendment 71 appear to indicate local support, but most of the funding behind the initiative comes from business interests. CREDIT: Conservation Colorado

“There is something so deeply ironic and troubling, I would say, that a corporate-funded campaign is trying to look like grassroots,” Goad said.