State Sen. Kevin Priola’s party change inspired an immediate recall effort. But redistricting complicates the question of where

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
State Sen. Kevin Priola in the Senate chamber March 24, 2022.

A group supporting newly minted Democratic state Sen. Kevin Priola, who switched his affiliation from Republican last month, is suing the Secretary of State over the recall effort that has been launched against him.

The question is which Senate district the recall should be conducted in. Priola was elected in 2020 to represent Senate District 25, an Adams County seat that leans Democratic. But last year’s redistricting process moved him into Senate District 13, which stretches north-south along US-85 and is more conservative.

Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, ruled that signatures for the effort must be collected in Priola’s new district, and it will be residents of that district who vote in any recall election. 

The lawsuit says that decision was wrong, and SD-25 should be the basis for the recall organizing and vote. He won’t be sworn in to represent SD-13 until the start of the next legislative session in January.

“There is no provision in the Colorado Constitution or Colorado Revised Statutes permitting electors of one senate district to sign a recall petition or vote in an election to recall the senator of another senate district,” states the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also argues that if the recall succeeds, SD-13 could end up with two senators until the new legislature is sworn in in early January, a situation it says would violate state constitution.

"Fortunately, the remedy is simple: S.D. 13 electors will have the right to petition for and vote on a recall in accordance with the Constitution after Sen. Priola becomes their senator in January 2023," it says.

The group organizing the recall dismissed the lawsuit as a desperate attempt by Democrats because they see the recall effort gaining momentum. Last week, state officials said the recall’s organizers could start trying to collect the roughly 18,000 signatures required to put the question before voters in Senate District 13.

“The voters of Senate District 13 should get to decide who represents them for the next two years,” said Michael Fields with the Advance Colorado Institute, the conservative non-profit behind the recall effort. “The Secretary of State is right that the recall should take place in the district he will be representing when the recall election occurs.”

The lawsuit, filed in Denver District Court, seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop the recall. 

Priola had long been Colorado’s most moderate Republican Senator, known for breaking with the rest of his caucus to sponsor bills with leading Democrats. In August, Priola announced he had changed his affiliation to Democratic, after being disillusioned by the GOP’s failure to distance itself from former president Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection and the party’s opposition to tackling climate change.

In his announcement, Priola, who has two years left in his term, said he didn’t expect to vote differently in the future, but would simply have a D by his name instead of an R. He noted he will continue to support Second Amendment rights and oppose legal abortion. Republicans were swift to denounce his move and say he should be recalled.

The switch means Democrats now hold a 21-14 majority in the state Senate. The GOP is particularly focused on retaking that chamber in the upcoming election, a task Priola’s switch has made more difficult. 

Even if recall organizers gather enough signatures to move forward, Priola still has the option of resigning before a recall vote actually takes place. In that instance, a Democratic vacancy committee would appoint a replacement to serve out the rest of his term.