Turmoil in the race for Colorado’s most conservative Congressional seat

Turmoil in the race for Colorado’s most conservative Congressional seat

Owen Hill goes full Obama as he attempts to keep incumbent Doug Lamborn off the primary ballot

The race for Colorado’s 5th Congressional District took a couple of unusual turns this week. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday that incumbent Doug Lamborn (R) didn’t have enough valid petition signatures to qualify for the June primary ballot. Lamborn is challenging the ruling in federal court. Thursday, challenger Owen Hill said he would intervene in the lawsuit on the side of the Supreme Court.

Hill is apparently using Barack Obama’s tactics: defeat your opponent by keeping him off the ballot. If Hill wins, Colorado voters lose.

Colorado’s complex electoral process

Colorado politicians created a complex system designed to keep themselves in office by making it difficult for challengers. The main route to the general election ballot was the precinct caucus and assembly system. Candidates competed at county and state assemblies. Anyone with more than 30% of the delegate at State would be on the primary ballot in June. The winner of that contest would be the party’s nominee in November.

There is another route as well. By collecting enough petition signatures from registered voters, a candidate can bypass the caucus process completely.

The Tea Party Revolution

In 2010 Tea Party activists flooded precinct caucuses. Establishment candidates lost to Tea Party types. People like Owen Hill were nominated. In subsequent cycles established politicians with money used petition gathering organizations like Kennedy Enterprises to collect signatures for them to avoid the caucus process now controlled by grassroots conservatives.

Democrats had a good year in 2012, taking control of both houses of the legislature. They wasted no time in consolidating their control. They re-wrote election laws and gerrymandered themselves into a 5-seat majority in the House.

They also passed five very unpopular gun control laws. In 2013, petitions in El Paso and Pueblo Counties successfully recalled the first two sitting state senators ever, the incumbents being replaced by Republicans. A third resigned so that she could be replaced by another Democrat, thus saving a one seat Senate majority.

It was then that tougher restrictions on petition gathering were put into law. Among other things, petition signature gatherer’s were required to be state residents and have no criminal records.

Doug Lamborn’s unique challenges

Lamborn won office in 2006 in a contentious 6-way race. Although his voting record is one of the most conservative in Congress, he’s been challenged almost every election since, mostly by retired general Bentley Rayburn or his surrogates.

This year is no exception. Amid rumors that Lamborn would retire, now State Senator Own Hill and El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn announced their candidacies for the seat.

Initially, Lamborn, Hill, and Glenn all sought to avoid the district assembly and petition on to the ballot. Glenn’s petition signatures were validated in February. About a week later, Hill changed his mind and went the assembly route. Facing no challengers there, he was nominated by acclamation.

Arguments over the signatures

Lamborn used the Kennedy Enterprises firm to collect signatures for him. The Colorado Secretary of State validated more then enough signatures for him to make the ballot.

But then attorney Michael Francisco, representing seven voters (who turned out to be Owen Hill supporters), claimed that the petition gatherers were not state residents and that therefore the signatures were invalid.

A district court judge ruled some of the signatures invalid on those grounds but left enough for Lamborn to qualify. On April 23, the State Supreme Court struck more and thus eliminated Lamborn from the primary ballot.

Suit and counter-suit

Lamborn is taking the case to federal court. His argument is that the residency requirement is unconstitutional. It’s already been thrown out in a case involving petitions for ballot initiatives.

Hill and State Rep. Dave Williams (R-15) are opposing Lamborn in federal court, saying that they “have an obligation to protect our state’s interest from interference on the federal level.”

"Now that Doug is trying to use an activist court to overturn long-standing state laws, as a lawmaker and a candidate I will do everything I can to fight for the integrity of the election process," Hill told Colorado Politics.

Williams added: "These petition circulator requirements are not only constitutional, they are common sense protections against election fraud. We will strongly ask the Court for a seat at the table in this case to ensure most vigorous defense possible of our state law and state interests."

Who’s being disenfranchised?

The Denver Post, the Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Politics have all reported even-handedly on the facts of this case. But none address the effect on the Colorado voter. We’re the ones being disenfranchised by this process. Our choices as to who will be on our primary ballot is being determined not by the people through petition signatures or by the people’s representatives through the caucus process, but by politicians and judges.

What is the citizen to do when asked by a gatherer to sign a petition? Imagine this conversation:

Gatherer, “Will you sign this petition to allow Candidate X on the ballot?”

Citizen, “Are you an official resident of Colorado and do you have a criminal record?”

Gatherer, “Of course I am and I certainly do not.”

In current law, the burden is now on the citizen to somehow know or prove the veracity of those statements. It’s absurd.

The petition gatherers in question qualify under the new Colorado voting laws to register to vote themselves—which in Lamborn’s case, some did. They could collect signatures for ballot initiatives—the residency requirement for that purpose has already been ruled unconstitutional—but not for a candidate to get on the primary ballot.

Current laws are intended to benefit some politicians at the expense of others. With these rules in place, it’s not necessarily the best candidate who wins but the one who can best use the election process to his advantage. It reminds one of the way Barack Obama got his start in politics by keeping his primary opponent off the ballot.

If Lamborn, like Alice Palmer, is kept off the ballot, the real losers are the Colorado voters who won’t have that choice.

Who’s doing the disenfranchisement? Not the federal court (which in any case has yet to rule) but the very partisan Colorado Supreme Court and politicians who make and play the rules for their own advantage.

June Primary update: the federal judge ruled in Lamborn's favor. He won renomination on the primary ballot. Owen Hill came in third with 19% behind Lamborn and County Commissioner Darryl Glenn.