Taking the Initiative: Coloradans Set to Vote on Proposal to Limit Ballot Initiatives and Constitutional Amendments

By: Emily Hessler

Coloradans looking to limit the number of citizen initiatives on the state’s ballots are using an unlikely tool to achieve their goal: the citizen initiative. Supporters argue that a proposed measure on November’s ballot––Initiative 71––would “raise the bar” by making it more difficult to get citizen initiatives on Colorado’s ballots and by increasing the percentage of votes required to amend the state’s constitution.

Under Article V of the Colorado Constitution, the ballot initiative is a power “the people reserve to themselves.” Pursuant to this constitutional provision, Colorado citizens can petition to include proposals on general election ballots for new legislation––statutory initiatives––or for constitutional amendments––constitutional initiatives. Twenty-four states allow initiatives, but only sixteen permit that constitutional initiatives go directly on the ballot without first being presented to the legislature.

Currently, in order for a citizen initiative to be included on Colorado’s ballot, five percent of the number of people who voted for secretary of state in the last general election must sign a petition in support of the initiative. Once on the ballot, the initiative must pass by a simple majority of the votes cast. These requirements apply to both statutory and constitutional initiatives. In fact, Colorado is one of just a few states in which the signature requirement is the same for both statutory and constitutional initiatives.

Unlike statutory initiatives, constitutional initiatives cannot be changed unilaterally by the Colorado legislature. As a result, ballot initiatives often propose constitutional amendments. Indeed, Colorado’s Constitution has been amended over 150 times; in the last decade alone, around three dozen constitutional initiatives have been on the ballot, thirteen of which have been approved.

If Initiative 71 passes, signatures from two percent of registered voters in each of the state’s thirty-five Senate districts will be required for a constitutional initiative to make the ballot. Additionally, constitutional initiatives would need fifty-five percent of the vote on Election Day to pass––that is, unless the initiative would repeal a constitutional amendment, in which case a simple majority would remain sufficient. The requirements for statutory initiatives would not change.

Proponents argue that the Initiative 71 will hem in excessive constitutional amendments, restoring the constitution as a blueprint for the state’s government rather than an ever-changing document. Advocates also believe that the thirty-five-district requirement would protect rural voters, whose signatures are rarely courted under the current five percent requirement. The proposal has garnered bipartisan support, including an endorsement from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.

But opponents worry that the initiative will make it near impossible for some causes, particularly poorly funded ones, to get a constitutional initiative on the ballot. They view Initiative 71 as an attack on direct democracy and citizens’ right to participate in the lawmaking process. In a recent editorial, the Denver Post concluded that, though making the constitution tougher to amend is a laudable goal, Initiative 71 misses the mark. The ACLU of Colorado also opposes the measure.

This is not Colorado’s first brush with a proposal like Initiative 71. In 2012, a bill that would have required constitutional amendments pass with sixty percent voter support died in the legislature. Colorado voters had previously rejected a referendum that imposed significant restrictions on ballot initiatives in 2008. In other states, the number of citizen initiatives has decreased in the last few years, a trend some have indicated may be due to attempts by legislatures to more strictly regulate the initiative process.

Come November, Colorado might finally take the initiative to end––or at least seriously limit––the citizen initiative. If the idea that Coloradans’ constitutional right to make laws via the initiative might be undone by initiative is not ironic enough, consider this: Initiative 71’s backers have been unable to verify that their petition would have met its own thirty-five-district requirement. Still, Initiative 71’s backers submitted a projected 127,054 valid petition signatures to Colorado’s Secretary of State, well over the 98,492 required for inclusion on the 2016 ballot. And those signatures were enough––for now.

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