Past and present election bills roil Republicans

DENVER - Republicans stepped up their opposition Monday to the new election system Democrats ushered in last year, calling for a two-year timeout just as school boards are gearing up for their elections in May.

At the same time, Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, pulled out as a sponsor of a bill designed to help school boards and special districts comply with last year's law.

Last year, the Legislature - with only Democratic votes - set up an all-mail election system, with an option for people who prefer to vote in person to go to a centralized voting center. People can now register to vote on Election Day, instead of needing to register 29 days prior to an election.

Republicans say the system is wide open for fraud. They plan to introduce a bill this week to delay last year's bill - which has already taken effect - for two years.

They are also opposing this year's House Bill 1164, which puts school board and special district elections under the same deadlines for voter registration as last year's law.

"It's filled with a toxic blend of bad ideas and unintended consequences," said Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Caņon City.

Sponsors are rushing to complete the bill soon, in time for May elections for school boards, fire districts and other special districts throughout the state.

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, backed out last week as a sponsor of the bill. Roberts did the same Monday, leaving it with only Democratic sponsors.

With Roberts' withdrawal as sponsor, the Legislature's partisan divide over how Coloradans should vote remains a stark as ever. Most county clerks, however, remain in support of both last year's and this year's election bills.

La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Lee Parker, a Republican, said the new system of mail ballots, voting centers and Election Day registration got many compliments and no complaints from local voters last November.

"It went so well. It was the best election I've conducted for a long time, as far as the positive feedback we received from voters," said Parker, who is president-elect of the Colorado County Clerks Association.

Murray said she removed her name from this year's bill because she didn't want to look like she was endorsing last year's election law. She also criticized the bill she had sponsored until last week, saying that it would allow voters to claim to move into a district on Election Day and influence the outcome of the election.

Critics call this "gypsy voting," and it's a prime concern of Republican opponents of Election Day registration.

Jon Caldara, president of the right-leaning Independence Institute, garnered media attention last year when he claimed to move from Boulder to Colorado Springs in order to cast a vote in the recall election against former Senate President John Morse.

The state attorney general's office declined to prosecute him for vote fraud, saying it would be a hard case to prove.

Caldara sarcastically thanked Democrats Monday for expanding his voting rights.

"What happens when dozens and perhaps hundreds of people decide to exercise their new rights?" Caldara said.

Democrats say Caldara proves their point that voter fraud is rare and difficult to pull off.

"As Mr. Caldara's stunt demonstrated, you would have to hire a bunch of lawyers to protect you when you are charged with a felony," said House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder.

Caldara was investigated but never charged with a crime.

Democrats say they suspect other Republicans pressured Roberts and Murray to withdraw from this year's bill, but they didn't offer any evidence.

"Bullies in their party, extremists in their party, have forced their names off the bill, unfortunately," said Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City.

Roberts said she did get emails from conservatives about HB 1164, but they didn't influence her decision to take her name off it.

"That's not how I operate," she said.

She sponsored the bill thinking that Murray would be able to change it in the House to remove parts that allow voters to register in a district on Election Day. When the House passed the bill last week with no changes, Roberts decided to withdraw as sponsor.

"If I couldn't fix it, then I didn't want to be part of somebody's quote solution unquote," she said.

Roberts, however, did not attend a news conference Republicans held Monday to decry Democrats' election bills.