The session that ended recently in the Colorado General Assembly was “a hot, noisy spectacle people aren’t likely to see again for some time,” as the Denver Post described it. It was also startlingly productive. The Assembly enacted some of the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation. It approved same-sex civil unions. It created the nation’s first regulatory system for marijuana, which Colorado voters legalized in a ballot initiative last fall. And it passed legislation that gives undocumented students the in-state tuition rate at state universities.
And in early May, just before the session ended, it passed legislation that institutes both election-day registration and “portable” registration, which means that voters remain on the rolls even after they move to a new address. It creates a commission to study and suggest more reforms to Colorado’s voting system. And it expands voting by mail, requiring that mail-in ballots be sent to every voter in the state. Nearly three-fourths of Colorado voters took advantage of mail-in voting in last fall’s election.
Colorado is just one of seven states that expanded access to registration and voting in the past legislative year. Maryland introduced same-day registration for early voters, for example, and Virginia and West Virginia initiated online voter registration.
But it’s the combination of extensive reform and collaborative endeavor that makes Colorado stand out. Though about 70 percent of the state’s county clerks are Republican officeholders, three-fourths of them supported the reform bill. Their reasons were largely pragmatic. The mail-in voting system (which the bill expands) requires less equipment, staff and volunteers than in-person voting, meaning that it’s cheaper and easier to administer.
Colorado’s election reforms come at a time when the push to restrict voting access is losing some momentum, while the counter-movement to increase access has gained some strength. As of early May, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 30 bills that would expand access to registration and voting were active in 16 state legislatures, more than double the number of bills — 14 — to restrict voter access that were active in eight states.
In late June, the Supreme Court will rule on a case from Alabama, and that verdict could deliver a blow to the momentum for broader access. If conservative arguments prevail, the court will overturn Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that states, counties and cities with a history of racial discrimination get “pre-clearance” from the U.S. Department of Justice before changing their voting laws. That obligation has helped to block voter suppression tactics by the GOP, such as imposing unreasonable limits on voting days and hours, and its repeal would almost certainly result in a resurgence of such efforts in the South.
In Colorado, it’s not clear whether the victory for voting access will translate into broader bipartisan efforts. The cooperation between Democrats and GOP county clerks didn’t extend to Republican lawmakers, who voted almost uniformly against the reforms, offering the standard bogus objections frequently used to restrict voting access. Kevin Lundberg, a Colorado state senator, said the bill should be named the “Same Day Voter Fraud Act” because of its provision for same-day voter registration.
On the other hand, Colorado’s slow leftward drift over the past years might bode well for a new era of expanded voting access nationally. Colorado has been the subject of much strategizing and handwringing on the part of conservatives, who’ve watched with horror its metamorphosis into a reliably blue state. A 2008 essay by Fred Barnes in the conservative Weekly Standard summed up their angst: “The Democratic surge in Colorado reflects the national trend, but it involves a great deal more. There’s something unique going on in Colorado that, if copied in other states, has the potential to produce sweeping gains nationwide. That something is the ‘Colorado Model.’ ” Two Weekly Standard authors described the model in a follow-up to Barnes’ piece: “In a nutshell, [it’s] about infrastructure. … Colorado progressives recognized the Democratic Party could no longer raise enough money to fund the kind of organization necessary to sustain a long-term political movement. So with backing from a handful of large donors, they built a network of specialized, coordinated nonprofits to fill the void. The results were stunning” — i.e., a Democratic takeover of the state’s politics. The key to the model’s success, according to Barnes, is the synergy among Colorado-based nonprofits that divide up the labor while working together closely toward one overarching goal. The collaborators include state-based think tanks, a Colorado version of the media-watch organization Media Matters, an online progressive newspaper and a public-interest law firm. There’s even a school: the Center for Progressive Leadership Colorado (an organization that also has branches in Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin).
But does the “network of specialized, coordinated nonprofits” that is presumably the heart of the model — and thus key to progressives’ fortunes — have the organizing muscle and potential for national relevance that conservatives believe? Whether the election reforms in Colorado are a blip or a bellwether depend in large part on how that question is resolved nationwide over the next few years.
In the meantime, “Colorado just got itself a 21st century, inclusive elections system,” as New Era Colorado Foundation, one of the nonprofits that worked for reform, put it. “Colorado’s emerging from this session as a more equitable state, a stronger democracy, and an all-around more badass place to live.”