Interference with signature gathering for ballot initiatives is growing as contentious initiatives try to make the ballot. One particularly polarized issue is Initiative #97, which proposes to increase the buffer zone around oil and gas wells from 500 feet to 2,500 feet. Oil and gas supporters claim this would ban drilling on almost all non-federal lands in Colorado.
Efforts by the Better Jobs Coalition to persuade people to “ask the tough questions” before signing initiative petitions claims that signing could lead to identity theft. Formed by candy magnate Rick Enstrom in 2016 to support Republican candidates, the independent expenditure group spent about $48,000 on radio ads supporting Walker Stapleton during the 2018 primary.
Complete Colorado has been unable to identify recent contributors to the Better Jobs Coalition because campaign finance reports are not due until August 3.
In a radio ad sponsored by the group, El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller says, “They’re at it again. Standing on street corners, in front of grocery stores asking you to give away your personal information to sign their political petition. Hi, I’m Commissioner Mark Waller asking you to think twice before you sign. Many signature collectors are funded by out of state special interests, and they’re pushing a political agenda that is never as good as it sounds. And when you sign your name, all your information is in a public database accessible on the internet. Before you sign one of those petitions, ask the tough questions.”
Asking voters to “ask the tough questions” seems uncontroversial, but the ad is deceptive because only registered voters can sign petitions and their information is already in the state voter registration database, which is already available to the public.
Signing a petition doesn’t record any new information other than the signature, nor is any critical information such as Social Security numbers included on the petitions. Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert voiced some concerns about the signatures being public record to the Colorado Independent but said, “You have a right to challenge a petition. How do you do it if you can’t see the signatures?”
Waller is quoted in the Colorado Independent as saying that Frank McNulty, former Republican House Speaker asked him to do the ad.
Caroline Fry, outreach director for Colorado Common Cause, worries that the ads are trying to instill fear in voters. She said, “Lots of folks are frightened right now about their identities being stolen. I think that these kinds of commercials are trying to harness this fear so that folks will be a little more hesitant.”
“I don’t think this is anything revolutionary or brand new. We’ve seen this in previous years,” she said, “I hope that Coloradans can take it upon themselves to do their own research as opposed to throwing their hands up and saying, ‘I don’t want to get involved in this, I don’t want to be harassed, I don’t want to be followed, I don’t want my identity to be stolen.’”
The Colorado Independent quotes Independence Institute* President Jon Caldara as saying, “They’re using their First Amendment rights to scare you away from using your First Amendment rights…I would hate for Fix Our Damn Roads to get caught up in the collateral of it.”
Fix Our Damn Roads is a statewide ballot measure for which Caldara is a proponent, and for which signatures are being gathered.
The initiative signature gathering process has been complicated even more by reactions to petition gatherers trying to circulate petitions in supposedly private spaces. Complete Colorado’s Sherrie Peif reported June 29 on harassment of petition circulators at the Greeley Stampede rodeo.
Stampede officials prevented signature gatherers from approaching people outside of the venue over the course of several days. Officials claim that the public park the organization leases from the city becomes private property and that the Stampede has the right to prevent anyone from collecting signatures or handing out literature on the sidewalks outside of the park itself.
Colorado law says “Any person who willfully…suppresses any initiative or referendum petition” is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to one year in county jail.
It is unclear whether the language of the radio ads constitutes suppression of an initiative.
* Complete Colorado is a project of the Independence Institute.