Norton petition signatures challenged in court

June 28, 2010

Already battling for her party’s nomination, GOP Senate hopeful Jane Norton now faces a court fight to keep her spot on the August primary ballot.

A Grand Junction businessman has sued to contest the validity of the signature-gathering effort that allowed Norton to get onto the Aug. 10 Republican primary ballot against Weld County prosecutor Ken Buck.

And while Norton says she “isn’t losing sleep” over the suit, a courtroom defeat could deal a serious blow to her campaign to take the seat now held by Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

In late May Norton submitted 33,336 signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office, the lawsuit states. After checking the petitions, the Secretary of State's Office  concluded that Norton had 20,133 valid signatures, or nearly twice the number needed to be placed on the ballot.

The lawsuit, filed June 14 in Denver district court, attacks Norton’s petitions on three fronts.

It alleges that some of the signatures gathered by Norton supporters should be disqualified because the petition circulators were not state residents, were not registered to vote, and were not affiliated with Republican Party.

The lawsuit also alleges the notaries public violated state laws because they were not disinterested parties, but helped in the signature-gathering effort or held paid or unpaid positions with the Norton campaign.

And the lawsuit alleges that some of the signers were not registered to vote or affiliated with the Republican Party.

If a judge tosses out enough signatures, Norton would be ineligible for the primary ballot, leaving the path clear for Buck. Norton could, however, be a write-in candidate for the general election provided she files an affidavit by Aug. 24.

The suit was brought by Thomas Bjorklund, chairman and chief executive officer of Tactical Data Solutions, a firm that has helped Republican candidates, conservative organizations and nonprofits use data to target specific audiences.

Norton contends the suit has the fingerprints of Ken Buck all over it, and says Bjorklund has a Buck campaign sign in his yard. Bjorklund said he is not working for any campaign.

“I’m a concerned citizen” he said in an interview. “I’m concerned about the three million voters in Colorado who rely upon the process to have integrity.”

Top Buck adviser Walt Klein said the campaign has nothing to do with the suit and will stay on the sidelines.

“I don’t know if Bjorklund has a Ken Buck yard sign or not,” Klein said. “So what if he does? That has nothing to do with a lawsuit over petition signatures.”

In his suit, Bjorklund challenges the decision by the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office that Norton gathered enough signatures to earn a place on the ballot.

Norton decided to petition onto the ballot after Buck made a strong showing in the March Republican caucuses.

She said her campaign hired professionals to get some of the signatures because “You couldn’t do the entire thing with volunteers.”

Norton needed 10,500 signatures, with at least 1,500 signatures from each of the state’s seven congressional districts.

Bjorklund said the signatures in each congressional district ranged from 3,709 in the Fifth Congressional District to 2,251 in the Seventh Congressional District.

According to a database compiled by Bjorklund that was provided to The Gazette, four of the professional signature gatherers working for Norton have the same names as four who lived in a Colorado Springs rental house owned by anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce.

Those four collected signatures for Amendment 60, Amendment 61 and Proposition 101. Those measures, which will be on the November ballot, would roll back taxes and motor vehicle fees and limit the ability of government to borrow money.

The four are Jane Harwell, Glenda Bittner, Jackie Glenn Hisey and Thomas Glenn. Some of the same notaries public were also used, according to Bjorklund’s data.

In a proceeding Friday in District Judge Christina Marie Habas’s courtroom, the discussion focused on the Seventh Congressional District. That district encompasses Lakewood, Arvada, Aurora and much of Adams County.

Robert Loevy, a Colorado College political science professor, said court fights over petition signatures have been fairly common in Colorado during the past few decades. But seldom has a judge agreed to rip up the ballot.

“Any time it appears close, chances are very good that an opponent will try to go to court and take whatever means are available to contest signatures and knock the person off the ballot,” Loevy said.

If Norton loses in court, her name will still appear on ballots across the state that will be mailed in mid to late July.

“Because many of the counties will already have their ballots printed with Norton included, they simply will not tabulate the results in that primary if the judge rules she didn’t qualify for the ballot,” Secretary of State spokesman Richard Coolidge said Monday. 

If that happens, Norton would continue to run as a write-in candidate, said John Zakhem, an attorney for Norton.

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