Court made signature gathering harder. Some ballot initiative groups are undeterred.

Ruling killed effort to increase fracking setbacks

woman signing petition
Connie Brachtenbach signs a petition in support of Initiative 271 from a car, parked at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, on July 9, 2020. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Despite a recent Colorado Supreme Court order that makes collecting tens of thousands of voter signatures an even more difficult task during the COVID-19 pandemic, at least a few groups remain optimistic they’ll be able to make the state’s August deadline to submit initiative petitions.

Others, however, including one that aimed to create new setback requirements for oil and gas developers, decided to throw in the towel.

On July 1, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled against Gov. Jared Polis’ executive order that suspended requirements that petitions be signed in person.

The order, aimed at reducing coronavirus transmission, briefly allowed initiative campaigns to distribute petition forms online. Interested voters could print out a form, sign it at home, and mail or email it to the petition gatherer.

Business advocacy organization Colorado Concern sued Polis, along with Secretary of State Jena Griswold, alleging the executive order violated the state’s Constitution. The court agreed.

“The Colorado Constitution requires that ballot initiative petitions be signed in the presence of the petition circulator,” the court said in its opinion, which reversed an earlier Denver District Court ruling. “That requirement cannot be suspended by executive order, even during a pandemic.”

Ballot initiatives seeking a constitutional change must collect a total of at least 124,632 valid signatures from Colorado voters. Those signatures must include at least 2% of the registered voters in each of 35 state Senate districts.

Off the table

For Safe & Healthy Colorado, the group pushing Initiative 174 — which would have created 2,500-foot “safe zones” between fracking wells and homes, schools and water sources — the ruling proved too difficult an obstacle to overcome.

“We decided to stop pursuing a ballot initiative, because it eliminated all of the really safe options for getting signatures,” activist Suzanne Spiegel said. “We’re not going to put our committed volunteers in harm’s way during a pandemic. And so we felt like it was a pretty irresponsible (court) decision, but it really made pursuing a ballot initiative safely nearly impossible.”

Anti-fracking group Colorado Rising stopped gathering signatures on the initiative in response to the pandemic, Westword reported in June. Spiegel and fellow activist Anne Lee Foster then formed Safe & Healthy Colorado directly in response to Polis’ executive order on petition gathering.

“Our whole system was based around collecting signatures remotely so that we could get it done while also keeping everybody safe and not contributing to the spread of the pandemic,” Spiegel said. “… When we found out that Jared Polis passed the executive order that gave us the other option, that’s what sort of propelled everything forward in terms of digital and mail, and when that option was removed, it really killed our campaign.”

Activists are now exploring the possibility of running a similar ballot initiative in 2022, she said.

Adapting to the new normal

Other groups were better equipped to adapt without Polis’ order in place.

“We were disappointed by the ruling … but we also had a smorgasbord of ways that we were gathering (signatures) already in operation,” said Abigail Vining, campaign manager for Fair Tax Colorado’s Initiative 271.

woman signs petition
Adrienne Propsom signs a petition in support of Initiative 271, provided by Angela Bird, left, at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs on July 9, 2020. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

For Fair Tax Colorado, that includes small pop-up signing stations with safety measures like masks, clean pens and hand sanitizer, plus “mobile petition carriers” across the state who will drive to meet people interested in signing a petition.

The COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn could actually improve the chances for Initiative 271, which provides a tax cut for most Coloradans and raises taxes for people earning more than $250,000, Vining said. The change would allow Colorado to “invest back into the things that are going to suffer the most in an economic downturn,” she said. “The world circumstances, while incredibly unfortunate and something we would never have wished for, makes this measure all the more important to folks.”

Also anticipating greater support amid the downturn: Colorado Families First, which supports Initiative 283 to create a paid family and medical leave insurance program.

“Seeing the way coronavirus has torn through our communities, with many Coloradans unable to take leave to care for themselves or their loved ones, we know that now is exactly the right time to pass this policy,” state Rep. Matt Gray, a Democrat from Broomfield, said in a recent statement from the campaign.

Signature gathering
From left: State Rep. Matt Gray (D-Broomfield), Sen. Faith Winter (D-Westminster), Rep. Yadira Caraveo (D-Thornton), and Sen. Dominick Moreno (D-Commerce City), at a signature gathering event for Initiative 283 on July 8, 2020, in Westminster. (Courtesy of Colorado Families First)

The initiative would require most businesses and workers to start paying premiums into the program in January 2023. Those would amount to 0.9% of wages (split between employees and employers). In exchange, workers could be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid leave per year, with an additional four weeks for qualifying pregnancy or childbirth complications.

“Securing paid family and medical leave for all Colorado workers will make sure we’re ready for any potential future health emergencies, while also giving businesses the time to recover before it goes into effect,” Gray said.

Colorado Families First held a “socially distanced signature collection” event on July 8 with several state legislators at Madison Park in Westminster. The event included a food truck to help encourage supporters to stop by and sign a petition.

The group is “confident” it will be able to turn in enough valid signatures by the August deadline, said Olga Robak, communications director for the campaign.

Safety measures do make the process more complicated. Signing takes place outside to minimize virus transmission, Robak said, and each signer gets a new pen.

Still on track

Another campaign — this one to let local voters approve their own gaming limits at casinos — also plans to move forward.

“The pandemic has made things more difficult, but we are taking appropriate health and safety precautions and have strict protective measures in place for both petition signers and signature gatherers,” Karen Crummy, spokesperson for the Initiative 257 campaign, said in a statement.

Protect Colorado — the organization behind ballot initiatives 284 and 304 — went further, actually cheering on the Supreme Court’s decision.

“The Colorado Supreme Court decision was good news for Colorado and everyone who believes in fair, open and transparent elections,” the group said in a statement provided by communications director Laurie Cipriano. “You don’t have to change the system and violate the Constitution when you have good issues that the public supports.”

Initiative 284 would prohibit local and state governments from restricting consumers’ ability to use natural gas to power their homes. It’s aimed at preemptively invalidating any future state legislation or local ordinances that would prohibit the use of natural gas in new construction.

Initiative 304 would require that a verified fiscal study for any future ballot initiative be included directly on the ballot. Such a fiscal impact statement would need to include expected job losses and gains, and changes to state revenues.

“Protect Colorado has collected more than 120,000 signatures for each measure by simply following the constitutionally-mandated process,” the group’s statement said, adding that signature collection is proceeding at a similar pace to that seen in previous election years.

“We have invested significant time and effort to promote health and safety while working with state and local officials,” the group said.

To see the full list of ballot initiatives already on the ballot and those collecting signatures, visit the secretary of state’s office’s website.