Lawmakers: Let Colorado Vote celebration more about spin than a win

Author: John Tomasic - May 9, 2017 - Updated: May 9, 2017

Colorado's "gold dome."
Colorado’s “gold dome.”

Let Colorado Vote, the group advocating for open primary elections in the state, celebrated legislative leadership on Monday tied to Senate Bill 305 in a way that lawmakers involved with the bill suggested was little tied to experience on the ground at the Capitol.

“The thousands of grassroots activists who helped enact the open primary law were frankly shocked that legislators would try a blatant end run around the voters,” Let Colorado Vote Vice Chair John Hereford was quoted in an email blast to supporters. “But thanks to the leadership of Senators Hill and Moreno and Governor Hickenlooper, the most egregious provisions of the bill were spiked. There’s still work to do, but the highest principal of [Proposition] 108 is intact — unaffiliated voters have the right to vote in a primary without being forced to affiliate with a political party.”

Let Colorado Vote, bankrolled largely by kidney dialysis company Davita CEO Kent Thiry, promoted ballot propositions last year that voters supported and that will now restore a presidential primary in the state and open party primaries to unaffiliated voters — the largest voting bloc in the state.

Thiry has been planning to run for governor in 2018 as a Republican, and most observes believe he poured millions of dollars into the propositions last year largely because he hopes unaffiliated voters might push his candidacy through a Republican primary process that typically brings out only the most conservative voters in the state.

Sate Sen. Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat who sponsored bipartisan Senate Bill 305 to implement Proposition 108, said the bill never forced anyone to affiliate with a party and he wasn’t sure what “leadership” Sens. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, or Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat, provided in spiking any of the bills “provisions.”

Sen. Hill wasn’t sure either. He noted that Senate Bill 305 passed the Senate.

“I don’t know who’s celebrating. I’m not celebrating. I voted against it,” said Hill.

“But that’s what you get at the end of session,” he added. “I tell my constituents, focus on your lawmakers, focus on their votes because what happens outside the building — no offense to the media — but it’s often people moving fast and there’s not enough information,” he said, shaking his head.

Fenberg’s bill is moving with breakneck speed through the Capitol in the final hours of the legislative session. It passed out of the Senate on Monday and passed through two committees and won majorities in two of three readings in the House by Tuesday afternoon.

The secretary of state’s office argues it has to write rules around the primary elections this summer for primary elections scheduled for next summer — and that rules written without statutory guidance from the Capitol will almost certainly draw lawsuits.

Moreno said he was tapped to get involved by lobbyists for the bill who “needed lawmakers who would not just rubber stamp what the political parties were putting forward.”

“They asked me because I ran a primary bill last year,” Moreno said. “I talked to my colleagues and with Owen [Hill] got some concessions that will keep voters from being fit into a party box.”

Moreno said the action around the bill being celebrated by Let Colorado Votes was the third-reading Senate floor amendment offered by the sponsors that removed Section D of the bill. That section would have asked unaffiliated voters which party’s primary ballot they wanted to vote — Democrat or Republican — and, from that point on, clerks would always send that party’s ballot to the voter unless he or she instructed the clerk to do otherwise.

Hereford has called that provision “de facto” and “crypto” affiliation.

Fenberg said he thought the provision made clerical sense because research shows most independent voters generally tend to vote for a single party’s candidates even while choosing to remain unaffiliated. But he said he was never wedded to that section and added that, at early signs the section was drawing opposition, he offered to amend the bill to leave it out — but he didn’t because the bill’s opponents didn’t seem that interested at the time.

Fenberg said he had talked to Hill about the amendment but that Moreno was never party to the talks.

“Yeah, I wasn’t involved in that,” said Moreno flatly.

Moreno and Hill are both running for Congress, Moreno in Congressional District 7 and Hill in District 5. It’s no secret at this point that Thiry is willing to spend big on Colorado politics, including perhaps on congressional campaigns.

Moreno said his view on the bill — and his open ear to the group behind it — had no connection to his electoral ambitions.

“Pure coincidence,” he said with a smile.

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.