Updated -- While two recent skirmishes over ballot petition signatures cast this coming weekend’s state party assemblies in an unexpected new light, Secretary of State Wayne Williams says he satisfied that the process of validating those signatures has played out in the processes that adhere to his office’s rules.
- Cynthia Coffman is protesting Stapleton's decision to compete at the party's state assembly this weekend because he missed an April 2 deadline.
Republican Walker Stapleton, regarded as a frontrunner in the governor's race, recently asked that the Secretary of State’s office void the signatures gathered for his candidacy in the primaries. Stapleton also accused Kennedy Enterprises, one of the signature gatherers his campaign contracted, of lying about how it had circulated petitions.
A legal challenge has also been launched against Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, which could keep his name off the ballot for the same reason. Five Republican voters in Lamborn's Colorado Springs-based district sued Williams. A Denver judge said Lamborn could stay, but the case may be on its way to the state Supreme Court.
- Related: Are you an unaffiliated voter who wants to take part in the primaries? Visit ChooseU at the Secretary of State’s website.
“In Walker's case, the allegation, or the report, is that there were individuals who were circulators who weren't actually the circulator, that someone else signed as the circulator for the person who actually gathered the petition signatures. That's clearly not allowed under Colorado law under any circumstance,” Williams said. “That's part of the challenge in a process where you hire other people to do the work for you.”
In the Lamborn case, “You have to be a Colorado resident according to the law. The judge reviewed each of those, made a fact-based determination, found that all of them except one counted as Colorado residents and therefore, he was on the ballot,” Secretary of State Wayne Williams said on Thursday. “We have to make decisions based on the information available to us at the time and as the judge noted in the Lamborn case where a judge has actually ruled, we did what we were supposed to.”
Dan Kennedy, who owns Kennedy Enterprises, denies any wrongdoing. He told ColoradoPolitics.com, "To the best of my knowledge, all of the petition circulators are Colorado residents. And all the signatures were gathered legally."
Williams says his office has referred the Kennedy case "to law enforcement to do the investigation."
Read The Full Transcript
Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News, I'm Ryan Warner. Two candidates for major offices in Colorado could be left off the June primary ballot because of questions about the signatures they gathered to qualify. On Tuesday, Republican Walker Stapleton, a front-runner in the governor's race, asked that his signatures be voided saying the company that collected them, may have done so improperly. Meanwhile, a legal challenge against Republican Congressman, Doug Lamborn, could keep his name off the ballot for the same reason. A Denver judge said Lamborn could stay, but the case may be on its way to the State Supreme Court. Well the man who oversees Colorado's elections and the ballot process is Secretary of State, Wayne Williams and welcome to the program Wayne.
Wayne Williams: Thanks for having me on again, it's good to be here.
RW: For both Stapleton and Lamborn, it's not the authenticity of the signatures that's in question, but that they may have been gathered improperly.
RW: As I said, your office oversees the integrity of elections. What do you say to folks who signed petitions for these candidates in good faith believing their voices would be heard?
WW: So the issues are actually slightly different in the two cases. The question raised with respect to the petitions gathered, circulated by Doug Lamborn and by the firm he used, is whether the circulators were Colorado residents.
RW: Oh, and you have to be in order-
WW: You have to be a Colorado resident according to the law. The judge reviewed each of those, made a fact-based determination, found that all of them except one counted as Colorado residents and therefore, he was on the ballot. You pointed out correctly that we do something different this year, an implicit but so your listeners know, we have for the first time under a new law, we're actually checking signatures.
RW: But before we get here, I want you to address those folks who signed petitions and who are thinking right now, Walker Stapleton may not be on the primary ballot.
WW: So Walker's position is different. In Walker's case, the allegation, or the report, is that there were individuals who were circulators who weren't actually the circulator, that someone else signed as the circulator for the person who actually gathered the petition signatures. That's clearly not allowed under Colorado law under any circumstance, it's never been allowed, never been allowed in another state either. So part of the process and the reason that's there, is to ensure that someone isn't coerced, isn't mislead in terms of what they're signing. You can't put a petition in front of someone and say, this is to make all toll roads go away, and then have it be a candidate petition. So you have to have a legitimate basis and you have to conduct the circulation honestly.
RW: What do you say to voters who may be frustrated right now?
WW: I think you have every right to be frustrated when a contractor for a candidate doesn't do what they should do and that's part of the challenge in a process where you hire other people to do the work for you. There are some candidates who do almost all of the circulation themselves and so, Larry Liston, when he ran for the state house against an incumbent a couple years ago, circulated almost all of those himself, he had over 90% accuracy rate.
RW: Is what I hear you saying that you think this system worked in this case and that this is the logical outcome when there are questions, or are you perhaps questioning whether those signatures, especially for Walker Stapleton, should it have been certified by your office in the first place, because there was controversy brewing before you did.
WW: We have to make decisions based on the information available to us at the time and as the judge noted in the Lamborn case where a judge has actually ruled, we did what we were supposed to. When there is extraneous information, information that is not on the face of the petitions, that's something that has to be resolved in a court of law because my office is charged with checking the facial, in other words checking to see if the person appears on the registration books. That's our job. If someone wants to bring a challenge and saying even though they appear on there, that's not really what happened, that's a different process that's set forth in the law.
RW: You're talking about the appearance and validity of the signatures versus the more fundamental questions about what you call the circulators, the people gathering the signatures. Does there need to be a change in some regard when it comes to these contractors, when it comes to these signature gatherers?
WW: I would like I think in a perfect world for me, I would have some changes in that, but the challenge here is the First Amendment, same right that protects this station and all the others, also gives the right to petition and the Supreme Court and federal courts applying that have very much limited the types of restrictions that states can impose upon those who circulate petitions. So we have to make sure that whatever we do to address these circumstances comports with the Constitution as that First Amendment.
RW: What is a change you would like to see?
WW: I'm not enamored with a pay per signature because I think that incentivizes people, but I think courts have said you can't restrict that at least in some circumstances. I think one of the things we did last time is we worked with the legislature to pass signature verification. This arose in the Jon Keyser case where a circulator had forged some names to make some additional money.
RW: Right. I'll say that the legislature passed a law after that election in which there were forgeries that directed your office to beef up verification.
WW: Right. We were the initiator of that law. We worked to get that passed so that was one of the changes. I think that after this cycle, we'll go back, we'll look at it, and we'll say are there some ways to make it a better process. I think that's always part of what we do after each cycle is to say how can we make it better.
RW: But you are fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of pay per signature. Will your office investigate Kennedy Enterprises in Colorado Springs, which may have gathered these signatures improperly. I'll say that the company's owner Dan Kennedy denies any wrongdoing. He told Colorado Politics "To the best of my knowledge all of petition circulators are Colorado residents and all of the signatures were gathered legally." Would your office investigate this specifically? There may be lawsuits.
WW: So we refer matters to law enforcement to do the investigation. We did that with the fraud that occurred on the fracking initiative last time, the fraud that occurred on the minimum wage petition, and the fraud that occurred on the Jon Keyser petition. Each of those cases, law enforcement prosecuted and received either a plea or a guilty verdict.
RW: Have you referred this one yet?
WW: That is in the process.
RW: That is in the process. It will take place?
WW: It will.
RW: Will that happen this week do you think?
RW: Okay. Briefly along with issues on the Republican side, a Democratic candidate for Attorney General filed a lawsuit claiming that the entire petition process is unconstitutional because signatures of unaffiliated voters don't count, even though this election unaffiliated voters can vote in the primary. What's your take on this fundamental question? This will bring us, by the way, into the larger question of this primary in which about a million more Coloradans will take part.
WW: So I think it's ironic that an Attorney General's candidates first act is to suit invalidate state law since he's running for a job where you're actually supposed to defend the state law.
RW: This is Brad Levin.
WW: So I think that's ironic. It's also ironic that he has waited until this very last minute because the law in Colorado has been consistent for a number of years in these areas, so he's not challenging anything new or any of the new processes. He's challenging things that have been in existence for at least a decade.
RW: I suppose the question though is does the new shape of the primary change things, yes that may have been in place for decades?
WW: Now the crafters of the initiative very carefully worded their initiative in a ways to say that once the parties choose who the candidates are in the primary, either through the caucus and assembly process or through the petition process, then unaffiliated voters have the opportunity to participate.
RW: So it is your assessment that just because unaffiliated voters can take part in the primary, that doesn't change the rules governing who can sign petitions.
WW: The law was very clear, it did not change those.
RW: You're listening to Colorado Matters, I'm Ryan Warner and we're speaking with the Secretary of State in Colorado, Wayne Williams, specifically in regards to the fact that he is the overseer of elections and ballots statewide in Colorado. Let's get to this idea that the primary is changing pretty fundamentally in Colorado this election, with unaffiliated voters able to participate on June 26th. That means they're going to get in the mail two ballots, do I have that right, Wayne Williams?
WW: You do. This is a new process. The voters approved it. We did a survey actually of unaffiliated voters, we found that less than half knew of this opportunity despite the initiative that was passed in 2016 and so we went to the legislature and said, we would like to inform people of this opportunity and we received approval from both the House and the Senate and signed by the governor, to spend $900,000 on a public information campaign that does basically, Ryan, three things. The first-
RW: Why don't we just be the public information campaign right now?
WW: We are, we are.
RW: Okay. So I get two ballots in the mail.
WW: So first, you have the opportunity to participate, that's the first thing to know. Second, you have the chance if you wish, if you know which party's primary you wish to vote in, you may pre-designate that at uchoose.co.gov.
RW: We'll post a link to that later today at CPRnews.org. So I can say, I want to take part in the Republican Primary, the Democratic Primary, I can't take part in both correct?
WW: That is absolutely correct. In fact, there are Supreme Court cases that have said you can't do that and the initiative very clearly said, you must pick either the Republican or the Democratic ballot, that's why we've said, it's a "you choose", you meaning the unaffiliated and we want them to know and this is the important part of this, that you can't vote in both. And it's new because never before in history have we sent you a ballot and said, but don't return it.
RW: That is if I don't pre-choose, I'm going to get the two ballots in the mail. I cannot fill them both out and send them back in, that would invalidate the ballots. Am I throwing away the other one, that seems like an interesting security question.
WW: You're throwing it away just like you do a ballot that's not returned.
RW: Maybe tear that up?
WW: Tearing it up would be good. Hey, if you've got a shredder, that's probably what I might do, but because that ballot in order to count has to be returned with an envelope, with the voter's signature, we're not as concerned. We send out mail ballots now to lots of people who don't vote them. That's not new. What is new is telling you, even though you got two, you can only return one, you must choose.
RW: These will go out automatically to Colorado's more than million unaffiliated voters.
WW: About 1.4 million at the beginning of June, probably about June 4th in most counties.
RW: Very quickly, what about minor political parties?
WW: So if you, if a minor political party has a primary, you can choose to get that ballot. Absent that, you will get the ones for the major parties. That's what the initiative provided.
RW: Thanks Wayne Williams for being with us.
WW: Thanks Ryan. Appreciate the chance. And remember, pick one or the other, you can't vote both.
RW: This is your drumbeat. He's Colorado's Secretary of State and we will indeed post more information at Cpr.org later today. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.