Coronavirus threatens to keep proposed taxes, laws off Colorado’s 2020 ballot

Groups that were planning to ask Colorado voters for money and new laws in November are seeking rule changes after the coronavirus brought their efforts to a screeching halt.

This was going to be a big year for citizen-led democracy in Colorado, with dozens of initiatives aiming to make the November ballot, but the virus’ spread has created uncertainty about many of them. Among those that have not yet qualified for the ballot are an effort to create a paid family and medical leave program, a proposal to raise billions by hiking taxes on the wealthy and an initiative to raise cigarette taxes and create a new tax on vaping products.

In fact, only three initiatives made it onto the ballot before the statewide stay-at-home order and social distancing measures kicked in — ones seeking to reintroduce grey wolves in the state, repeal Colorado’s support for the National Popular Vote, and reiterate that only citizens may vote.

Eight others were approved to gather signatures. A ballot initiative calling for a ban on abortions past 22 weeks was granted an emergency motion by a judge last week to resume signature-gathering after the state’s stay-at-home order is lifted. “Due Date Too Late’s” initial signature collection fell short of the state’s requirement for 124,632 valid signatures, so the group will have a 15-day cure period to collect more.

Proponents have six months to collect in-person signatures, but the state Constitution requires all petitions to be filed at least three months before an election — this year, Aug. 3. Proposed initiatives have to get at least 5% of the total votes cast for all candidates for Secretary of State in the previous general election — 124,632 for this year’s initiatives. Signature requirements are more onerous for proposed constitutional changes.

While some campaigns say they have the community support to make the tight deadlines, others say it will be an uphill battle for any group that’s trying to make it onto the ballot unless changes are made.

State lawmakers changed how political parties could hold county assemblies last month because of limitations caused by the pandemic, and some candidates suspended campaigns because they couldn’t keep collecting signatures. Secretary of State Jena Griswold is working with Gov. Jared Polis’ office as well as Attorney General Phil Weiser‘ office to consider changes, though her office said it couldn’t specify what’s being considered. Polis’ office declined to comment.

“Circulators should not collect signatures while there is a stay-at-home order and should only start collecting when it is safe to do so,” Griswold’s office said in a statement. “The law remains unchanged as to deadlines. These deadlines may be adjusted by the legislature or executive order, or by court action on an individual case basis or in general.”

Backers of a statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program say if the stay-at-home order is lifted by June and it’s safe to go out and collect signatures, they have the support to meet the Aug. 3 deadline.

“Our funders and coalition have never been more committed to getting paid family and medical leave done this year, as the pandemic has exposed just how great the need is for Colorado families to be able to care for one another,” said Lynea Hansen, spokesperson for Colorado Families First, in a statement.

Similarly, Healthier Colorado is holding out hope that the tobacco and vaping tax question can make this year’s ballot if restrictions are lifted by June, Executive Director Jake Williams said.

But if safety measures go longer, things could get dicey.

For some grassroots efforts such as one to limit housing growth, proponents say there’s no way to move forward for 2020 — a year that would normally bring out more voters because of the presidential election.

Daniel Hayes of Golden, who brought the housing measure forward, is doubtful the stay-at-home order will be lifted by June. And even if it is, he said, people will still be more cautious about answering doors and picking up other people’s pens, and he doesn’t blame them.

“I’ve already spent quite a bit of money to get started, so it’s very disappointing,” he said.

Groups — especially those that haven’t started collecting signatures or have less money — are advocating for temporary changes to the signature-gathering process to make it more equitable.

Nathan Clay, who’s backing four initiatives that were approved for circulation, is lobbying lawmakers to either waive signature requirements for this election or allow for digital signatures.

The signatures for Clay’s issues, including one to make Election Day a state holiday, are due by July 10. That seems impossible, he said.

Supporters of the paid family and medical leave measure say they want to see temporary changes that would maintain both physical safety and election security.

“We are looking at online delivery methods for petitions, what it could look like if a circulator, signer and notary have to maintain social distance, and even exploring how we could maintain security using electronic petitions,” Hansen said. “It is important to note we are looking at all of these options only being allowed in the time of a public health crisis and not for them to become the way things are done in the future.”

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