Colorado’s free and fair election laws are under attack

A Colorado state Senate committee voted down a bill by Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, on Tuesday that would have ended Colorado’s popular and successful universal vote-by-mail system as we know it. The bill died on a 4-1 vote, with newly elected Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, joining majority Democrats in an act of pro-democracy bipartisanship.

Colorado’s election system has become the nation’s “gold-standard” for facilitating record turnout year after year, improving voter access, and ensuring election safety, integrity and security. Our system has been lauded by both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, county clerks and recorders, and officials in both parties for nearly a decade. Not to mention the fact that voters love the convenience of doing their civic duty from home, with nearly a month to study up on the positions of the candidates, as well as on the increasingly long list of ballot initiatives Coloradans are asked to weigh in on every year.

Sen. Lundeen says his intention was to “start a conversation,” hoping to “improve confidence” in our voting system. Dismantling our voting system is a funny way to progress. Why would we make such a radical change to a system that works so well?

The only way Lundeen’s bill makes sense is in the context of the campaign of voter suppression taking place right now in statehouses around the country in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s failed attack on the 2020 election, which he — and let me be absolutely clear — lost.

The Brennan Center for Justice, reports that as of February 2021, there are 165 bills to restrict voting rights moving through 33 statehouses. In Georgia, ground-zero in Trump’s attempt to overturn the will of the voters and browbeat local election officials into “finding” extra votes to hand him victory, these attempts include eliminating no-excuse absentee ballots to curtail voting by mail, and targeting early voting on Sundays when Black congregations traditionally organize their “Souls to the Polls” programs. A more targeted, racist attempt at disenfranchisement hasn’t been plotted in a legislature since Jim Crow.

This week, The Denver Post reported that Lundeen’s bill is one of several introduced so far in Colorado this session to baselessly erode confidence in the election. Republicans want to continue to sow doubt about voting by mail and keep alive the Big Lie that there was a massive conspiracy to steal the election from Donald Trump. Lundeen was one of the opportunists last December who hijacked Colorado’s bipartisan Legislative Audit Committee along with Donald Trump’s attorney, Colorado Christian University’s Jenna Ellis, to repeat debunked conspiracy theories about voter fraud in the presidential election.

January 6 taught us that lies designed to erode confidence in elections can have deadly consequences. But the campaign of intentional misinformation about voter fraud didn’t start with Donald Trump.

In Colorado, for years the chief proponent of voter fraud hysteria and ballot restrictions was former Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who mercifully never succeeded in implementing any of his vote suppression schemes. Gessler was stopped cold by Democratic majorities in the statehouse, and ultimately his own implosion over ethics scandals. Gessler is now vying to be the next chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, centering his campaign on the claim that the 2020 election was stolen. Gessler’s principal opponent in the race for party chair has also affirmed debunked conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Machines, all but ensuring Colorado’s next generation of Republican leadership will be doubling down on Trump’s Big Lie.

This false debate over election integrity in 2020 was not a disagreement about evidence. Politicians around the country pushing voter suppression bills are engaging in naked power plays. Myths about widespread voter fraud were meant to serve a political purpose, and the politicians trafficking in them have an agenda immune from the truth.

The only solution is depriving these legislators from the power to enact their agenda. In Colorado, politicians like Lundeen are safely contained — for now — in a powerless minority. Other states are not so lucky. Civil rights advocates have been sounding the alarm about attacks on voting rights from people like Scott Gessler for years. And after a conservative majority on the Supreme Court gutted key protections in the landmark Voting Rights Act in 2013, federal legislation is the only remedy.

A mob rampaging through the temple of American Democracy alerted us to the level of danger facing the country. The mob went home on January 6, and many of the most violent are in custody, but our elections are not yet secure from enemies of democracy.

Ian Silverii is the executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, the state’s largest progressive advocacy group.

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