Colorado Legislative Update
It’s been less than a month since the start of the Colorado legislative session, and we’ve already seen many democracy bills come and go, but there are also many still in play. It wasn’t looking good for bipartisan activity right from the start, when a resolution introduced by Sen. Kefalas, Rep. Ginal and Rep. Fischer concerning civility and respect in the Colorado General Assembly was laid over until May 8, which means it was killed. This certainly wasn’t the tone that most of us were looking for.
The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission is no stranger to direct attacks. And it’s not surprising given its role in holding public officials accountable to our ethics laws. One of the first ways the IEC experienced this was being underfunded by the Colorado General Assembly. It has volunteer Commissioners, and has had just one paid staff person the last several years. The latest attack is a new bill introduced by Rep. Stephens that attempts to hold the Commissioners severely and personally liable for actions of the IEC. What this means is that the Commissioners themselves, in their personal capacities, would have to pay any damages to a public official if the official prevailed in a complaint alleging that his or her rights were infringed upon. Now, of course we should make sure that those with complaints filed against them have certain protections, but that should be the role of the state, not the families of the people voluntarily serving as Commissioners of the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission.
Elections and Voting
Most elections are run in Colorado using a plurality method. Whoever receives the most votes wins, even if the winner doesn’t earn a majority of the votes cast. One of the problems with this method is that there may actually be a candidate preferred by the majority of electors, but who does not win the race. Think about it this way. Let’s say the first choice of voters is split between three candidates A 30%, B 30%, and C 40%. But if we look at the second choice of voters, candidate B has 75%. That means the candidate preferred by the most voters in the district is candidate B, but in a plurality voting system, candidate C actually wins.
There are many alternative methods of voting that would be an improvement, and one of those options is called Approval Voting. Approval Voting is a type of voting that allows a voter to cast a vote for as many of the candidates per office as the voter chooses. The winner of each office is the candidate who receives the most votes. Voters are “approving” the candidates they like, instead of being forced to choose just one. A bill introduced by Rep. Singer and Sen. Balmer would allow approval voting in nonpartisan local elections. Although we prefer Ranked Choice Voting, having the option for approval voting is an improvement that if used may result in elected officials in office who more closely represent the interests of their voters.
Redistricting and Reapportionment
For those not already aware, every ten years after the census, federal congressional districts and state legislative districts are redrawn to account for population changes. We perform this process of equalizing the population in every district to ensure voters are represented equally. This process, however, is often performed by elected officials themselves, a conflict of interest that can result in safe seats for incumbents and political parties at the expense of accurate representation for citizens. The Colorado process could certainly be improved, but a bill recently killed in committee could have made the process worse. The bill sought to disproportionately weight the members of the state reapportionment commission in favor of rural areas. It would have allocated seven members of the eleven member commission to represent, at a maximum, only 7% of the state’s population. This is not consistent with the notion of representative democracy, in other words, one person one vote.
Media and Democracy
The press holds an important place in the functioning of our democracy. The founders specifically named the protection of the press in the First Amendment. The idea is that only an informed citizenry can effectively self-govern. In recent years, the press all over the world, including in the United States, has been under attack from government agencies. The press is often able to attract sources with critical information for the public, because they are protected from having to share their sources with law enforcement or any government agency. These legal protections are typically called shield laws. Without them, whistleblowers would risk their jobs, their reputation or even their safety, and would be less likely to come forward.
A bill was introduced in Colorado by Sen. Herpin, and subsequently killed, that would have strengthened Colorado’s shield law by setting a near absolute protection. Right now, a Colorado journalist can be subpoenaed if a certain amount of evidence is presented establishing the need for the information held by the journalist. Although the bill isn’t moving forward this session, you can listen to the audio of its public hearing.
Public access to government documents is a critical tool for the public to become informed and hold government accountable. The Colorado Open Records Act is an old law in need of improvement. For one, people who request records have often been charged outrageous fees. There is currently no limit on what can be charged. A bill introduced by Rep. Salazar and Sen. Kefalas would put a cap on the cost at three times the minimum wage, require the policy be posted online or otherwise published, and also require that the research and retrieval fees be nominal in comparison to the actual costs. It’s a small step in the right direction.
For a more comprehensive list of the bills we’re following, please visit the online bill tracker.