Tate early-voting cost-savings bill still waiting back stage for big Senate curtain call

Author: John Tomasic - March 17, 2017 - Updated: March 17, 2017

State Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, talks to reporters, March 17, 2017. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)
State Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, talks to reporters, March 17, 2017. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)

An elections administration bill that has been quietly hanging around the Senate chamber since it was introduced the first week of the legislative session in Colorado will stay a little while longer.

On Friday, lawmakers laid over Senate Bill 71 for second reading until Monday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jack Tate, a Republican from Centennial, proposes to reallocate resources and save money by trimming back the number of Voter Service Centers large counties are required to set up in the first week of the state’s 15-day early voting period. The voting centers are used infrequently in the first of the two weeks running up to Election Day. Tate would allow clerks in large counties to set up one less voting center in the first week. The bill would also increase voting hours in the busy last days at the end of the voting period.

Capitol fiscal analysts say the bill could save between $700,000 and $1 million.

Critics of the bill say recent election reform has already saved millions. Between 2008 and 2014, costs of running elections in Colorado dropped about 40 percent, from $16 per vote to $9.56 per vote, according to county data compiled by Pew Trusts. Critics say increased access to voting is worth some measure of extra time and money.

Sen. Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder who founded youth voter registration group New Era Colorado, proposed a series of amendments to Tate’s bill in committee. Tate was sympathetic to at least the intent of the amendments but he declined to accept them. He wanted to consult with stakeholders and said he might welcome them during floor debate.

Tate knew what he was in for with this bill. Election administration proposals are famously hard to pass. There are many interest groups involved. There are 64 county clerks in Colorado. Political parties are on constant look out for the kind of high jinx that might give one party or another an advantage. Experts and amateurs weigh in passionately. Narratives rise to the surface that are difficult to correct.

Tate has been working with stakeholders for months to help craft the bill and win over the parties that can push it through the legislative chambers.

“I don’t do message bills,” Tate said in an interview this week.

He said his bill isn’t about flashing his conservative bona fides or asserting a philosophy about voting rights or access, or anything else like that. It’s about “increasing efficiencies,” as he put it.

In fact, he was upset that the bill had landed on a list of proposed state legislation that a writer characterized as part of Republican efforts to suppress the vote.

“You could say we’re cutting hours, but that’s looking at it from a labor-operations standpoint, not a consumer-access standpoint,” Tate explained. “You are cutting hours because that’s where you get savings in rental fees to facilities. So from the management side of the operation, you’re receiving savings, but from a client-service standpoint, there are no cuts.”

Tate has degrees in finance and marketing. That’s just how he talks — and how he thinks.

He likens the problem of the voting centers to a neighborhood with two Starbucks that aren’t drawing a lot of customers. Management could choose to close one of the stores but then also open the other one additional hours. So, you might have to drive farther to get to one, but there’s access to coffee and wifi longer during the day.

“I think this bill brings more hours and more convenience… These are practical benefits. It’s a good deal for everyone,” Tate said.

“Our counties provide most of the human services,” he added. “So even if a county saves a thousand dollars, maybe that’s for health care for somebody versus people (at a mostly empty voting center) sitting around staring at the ceiling.”

Sources say the Senate floor reading, whenever it comes, is make or break for the bill. The bill doesn’t yet have a sponsor in the Democratic-controlled House. If it arrives in the lower chamber un-amended, or if Tate can’t land a Democratic caucus sponsor, it is very likely to meet a swift end.

Rep. Dan Pabon, a Denver Democrat, said he has talked with Tate about perhaps sponsoring the bill in the House. Like everyone else watching the bill, Pabon is waiting to see what the bill looks like when it exits the Senate.

“I’ll always err on the side of fuller enfranchisement,” Pabon said. “And I’m always open to continue talking to anyone who’s looking to expand voter rights. I know Jack Tate is, too.”

* Watch for an expanded version of this story in this coming week’s print and online edition.

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

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