Opening the electoral process
Independent candidates push goes to Denver

SideStory: The legal case for independence

La Plata County Commissioner Joelle Riddle spends a typical day in her office at the courthouse on Tuesday. A former Democrat who recently changed to unaffiliated, Riddle is challenging state election laws that mandate independent or unaffiliated candidated petition to be on teh ballot 17 months in advance. Under the current law, Riddle, who is running for re-election, would need to run as a write-in candidate./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Kinsee Morlan

La Plata County Commissioner Joelle Riddle’s push for equal registration-timeline requirements for unaffiliated or independent candidates passed its first test Feb. 22. The Colorado House Judiciary Committee smiled on Colorado House Bill-1271 with an 11-0 vote.

The bill shortens the registration period required for unaffiliated candidates from 17 months to 10 months, according to the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Kathleen Curry, unaffiliated-Gunnison. “There used to be 21 states that had a registration requirement for unaffiliated candidates; now we are down to eight, and Colorado is the strictest of the eight,” said Curry.

Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, testified in favor of the bill before the Judiciary Committee, along with Curry and Riddle. Common Cause is a national organization that works for open, honest and accountable government. Voting rights and transparency of government are priority issues for Common Cause, according to Flanagan.

Common Cause took particular interest in HB-1271 because more than a third of Colorado voters are registered as unaffiliated. “It’s really time for Colorado to rethink the rules around ballot access to ensure that all potential candidates are included in our electoral process,” Flanagan said in her testimony. “Currently, Colorado law requires that unaffiliated candidates declare their nonaffiliation more than a year before an election in order to qualify for the ballot, but candidates who are affiliated with a political party – major or minor – don’t have that same restriction.”

In addition, major or minor parties can amend their own rules to circumvent the current timelines to allow ballot access for a candidate of their choice who may have changed affiliation; unaffiliated candidates are awarded no such flexibility.

The increasing numbers of voters disaffiliating from political parties is not just a statewide trend, but a national shift as well. “Nationwide, 42 percent of the electorate are independent,” Riddle said in her testimony before the Judiciary Committee. “The Federal Election Commission has never had an independent or unaffiliated voter sitting on it – and this is the body at the national level that makes all the election laws passed down to all the states.”

The fastest growing voter-registration group is unaffiliated, and Flanagan speculated it’s because people are dissatisfied with the major political parties. “People want to choose candidates based on their characters and the issues they represent, and not be put into a party box. I think our laws on how we access a ballot have to reflect that change.”

Riddle said her final decision to disaffiliate from the Democratic Party in August of 2009 was a “build-up of occurrences,” some of which prompted meetings with the local Democratic executive committee. “I tried to explain to them: when I was elected to this office it was clear to me that it was not just about being a Democrat or representing the 10,000 Democrats registered in the county, but it’s about doing what is best for 50,000 people.”

The voting record of current La Plata County commissioners shows that the three tended to align the majority of the time, according to Riddle. “When I did step out of that, and whether it was when I did not agree with my fellow Democrat, which I think was the crux of it, is when it was easy for people to say, now she’s just aligning with (Commissioner) Kellie Hotter, so she must be a Republican. But maybe Hotter was aligning with me – did anyone ever think of that?”

Riddle contacted Curry in November of 2009 after filing her lawsuit against La Plata County Clerk and Recorder Linda Daley and the State of Colorado to challenge the state’s law. “Some folks suggested to me that I go the legislative route to remedy the statute,” Riddle recalled. “Curry and I seem to mirror each other in the votes we had taken in that they weren’t always about the typical party position.”

Said Curry, “I was asked to run the bill last fall by Commissioner Riddle, and once I learned more and realized we had this unnecessarily difficult burden for unaffiliated candidates, I thought it would be good to … make it a more reasonable registration requirement,” said Curry, who disaffiliated from the Democratic Party after sponsoring the bill, because she “didn’t want to serve in a party anymore.”

“I don’t want to do the job that way,” Curry stated. “I just want to focus on my constituents.”

Because the effective date of HB-1271 wouldn’t be until April 2012, the only way Riddle could run in 2010 – unless she runs as a write-in – is if she wins the lawsuit, which goes to court in April (see related story). “If I win, it means the state law is changed, and that stays in place until the next person challenges it,” Riddle explained. “If I don’t have my name on the ballot, I don’t think I’m going to run for office as a write-in.”

Curry, however, is going to do what she can to hold on to her seat in the Colorado House – even if it means running as a write-in. Yet she’s hopeful unaffiliated candidates will be on more equal ground with affiliated candidates in the future, starting with the registration-timeline requirements.

“There is really no reason to have a 17-month requirement for unaffiliated candidates, so I think (state legislators) will look at it favorably, unless they just aren’t comfortable having unaffiliated candidates on a ballot,” said Curry. “But I think once they understand the bill, it’ll do all right.” •



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