How to Fix Colorado’s Candidate Petition Mess

The process by which Colorado candidates petition onto the ballot is a mess. What’s the right solution? I’ll consider several alternatives, but first let’s consider a few aspects of the problem.

As the Colorado Secretary of State’s office points out, to get on the primary ballot in Colorado, major-party candidates must either go through the caucus and assembly process organized by the parties or else submit 1,500 signatures per congressional district, currently 10,500 total.

As the Denver Post reviews, candidates often hire people to gather signatures, and in several cases signature gatherers have committed fraud. As Secretary of State Wayne Williams told the Post, “the paid-for-signature method . . . incentives wrongdoing,” but the courts have thrown out prohibitions of paid gatherers.

This election cycle, Republican candidate for governor Walker Stapleton originally decided to go the petition route to the primary ballot, but, after some fraudulent entries were discovered among the signatures, Stapleton withdrew his petitions and jumped to the assembly route. Stapleton’s major competitor, Cynthia Coffman, complained that Stapleton missed the deadline to go through assembly, but the party’s lawyers denied that. (Disclosure: I am a delegate at the April 14 Republican assembly, and at this point I tentatively favor Coffman over Stapleton, in part because I think Walker’s petition fiasco will weaken him in the general.)

To me, the biggest problem is not the potential for fraud but the sheer waste of wealth involved in collecting all those signatures. My guess is that it takes on average around ten minutes to gather a signature (and perhaps far longer, depending on circumstances). The work is miserable. So candidates either must find volunteers to do the work of gathering signatures or else hire a firm to do it.

Moreover, the Secretary of State’s office must undergo the work of validating all those signatures. I don’t know how much that costs, but as reporter Brian Eason points out, a legislative committee recently approved an additional $300,000 for verification expenses.

We’d be just as well off if we paid people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them back up. Actually, having them dig holes would probably be better overall, because at least they’d get a workout. The sheer waste galls me.

So what can be done? Here I outline several possible approaches, staring with the keeping the status quo.

1. Put the Burden on Candidates.

As Coffman suggested during a recent conference call, we can just decide to blame the candidates who end up with fraudulent signatures. The Post mentions other candidates who vet petitioners more carefully.

We could decide that all the time spent on gathering signatures is worth it, especially because the associated costs serve as a disincentive for major-party candidates to skip the assembly process.

2. Reduce the signature requirement.

As the Post mentions, Pollster David Flaherty suggests:

Time to change the rules my Colorado friends. Lower the number of valid voter signatures for a statewide candidate to 1,000 and put Kennedy [a signature-gathering firm] and the rest of these yahoos out of business. Who cares if we have 50 candidates on the ballot.

This strikes me as an excellent idea. The 1,000 signature mark is not entirely arbitrary; minor-party and unaffiliated candidates can already petition onto the ballot with that number of signatures.

But we should consider the costs. Such a low petition requirement would incentivize more candidates to go the petition route rather than through their party assemblies.

Also, with more candidates on the ballot, someone could win with a smaller fraction of the vote. Of course, this problem would be solved if we implemented approval voting, meaning that voters can select as many candidates as they want, thereby solving the problem of a candidate with low support winning in a divided field.

3. Abolish state-run primaries.

This is my favored approach (although not politically popular at present). As I’ve argued, the state of Colorado has no proper business involving itself in how political parties select candidates or forcing people to pay the associated costs. If parties want to run primaries to select their candidates, let them organize and finance them.

In my view, the state should not even mention party affiliation on the ballot. Let the parties advertise their candidates. Why should the state make it easy for people to lazily vote a party line?

If the state does list party affiliation, at least it should not discriminate between “major” parties and other organizations; any group should be able to register as a “party” on equal footing and endorse candidates.

The state should set the exact same access rules for the general ballot for every candidate. If parties want to run only one candidate per office, let the parties decide how to select that candidate.

Here’s a hypothetical example of how my proposal could work. The state could set a petition requirement for statewide office of, say, 2,000 signatures. Parties could hold their assemblies after the deadline for turning in petitions. Then parties could select among those candidates who qualified by petition, and the rest of the candidates could voluntarily withdraw. (Alternately, a party could select a candidate in advance on the assumption that the winner would be able to collect sufficient signatures.)

What if there were two Republican candidates on the ballot, and the loser at assembly refused to withdraw? We should leave that to the parties. To my mind a good remedy for that would be to kick the person out of the party for, say, a decade. Plus, obviously the party could actively support only the winner.

(Also, I think we should implement approval voting for all offices for the general election.)

It is necessary that the state organize general elections. It is neither necessary nor proper for the state to run primary elections, which benefit political parties at the expense of taxpayers.

Image of Walker Stapleton by Jeffrey Beall