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Colorado's quirky ballot reflects state's quirky voters

October 9, 2016 Updated: October 10, 2016 at 7:34 am
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Supporters of Amendment 64 rally outside City Hall Tuesday, July 23, 2013 where the City Council is expected to vote on whether they will ban the retail sale of marijuana for recreational use or delay sales until November when voters can decide to tax the sale of pot. Mayor Steve Bach has indicated that he will veto any action by the City Council that will allow the sale of marijuana for recreational use. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

John Taylor talked Colorado politics over his bacon, fried eggs and white bread toast Wednesday morning in Monument.

The 70-year-old from El Paso County orders the same meal every breakfast, he said. His taste for politics used to be as consistent, but these days he's more of an a la carte conservative.

With mail-in ballots going out in a little more than a week, beginning Oct. 17, Taylor said he is all over the ideological map in his views about the issues.

He opposes single-payer healthcare (Amendment 69), supports medical aid in dying (Proposition 106). He accepts a tax on cigarettes (Amendment 72), because of smoking's cost to public health, and he hasn't made up his mind on raising the minimum wage (Amendment 70).

"I've been pretty conservative most of my life," he said, lifting a piece of bacon between his thumb and index finger. "But the way the world is now, I'm not sure I'm as strict anymore. I kind of take it as it comes."

His wife, Helen, watched from under a stern brow across the wood laminate table at Village Inn. "He'll vote Republican," she said. "He just gets confused sometimes."

Colorado voters are like that. As an electorate, their political passions run hot, but cool quickly. And for quirky voters, the state routinely serves up a quirky, contradiction-laden plate.

This year, for example, getting the government out of the decision of when a person dies is a libertarian concept. But allowing the government to set a minimum wage is the opposite. Could the same voters pass both?

Coloradans will decide with Amendment T if the wording of an exception to slavery - for prison labor - should be removed, while preserving the existing inmate work programs, proponents claim.

Paradoxically, one measure citizens petitioned onto the ballot, Amendment 71, would make it more difficult for the next group of citizens to get a change to the state Constitution on the ballot.

Colorado swings

Colorado is called a swing state, because of its Election Day mood swings. Voters waffle between Democrats and Republicans, and make changes to state law and the Constitution as easily as picking songs on a jukebox.

Political scientists can only theorize why generally the same electorate flip-flops so much on the political principles underlying issues on the ballot. For starters, proponents of national issues find it fairly easy to test the waters by making Colorado's ballot. Another part of the explanation could be that Colorado has nearly equal numbers of unaffiliated voters, Republicans and Democrats, which means the electorate can fluidly shift gears from one side to the other.

For instance, Colorado voters passed recreational pot in 2012, but two years later rejected labeling genetically modified foods and horse track slot machines.

The same year Coloradans passed the often-reviled, uber-conservative Taxpayer's Bill of Rights in 1992, voters sided 2-to-1 against school vouchers, another entree on the conservative menu.

TABOR mandates spending limits that have decimated education funding, delayed projects and forced budget cuts. In 1992, it passed 53 percent to 46 percent, just two years after it failed, 51 to 48.

As it often does, a majority of Colorado voters that year got swept up in the mood of the nation. Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot led a high-profile campaign against government spending, a Ronald Reagan on steroids.

Nationwide he received 18.9 percent of the popular vote, including 23.3 percent in Colorado. The percentage could have been much higher if more Republicans had supported Perot's march on big government, rather than stick with the fading incumbent, George H.W. Bush.

TABOR was sitting pretty.

Perot's Colorado legacy

"I don't think that could happen today, or that it would pass in any other election," said Tom Cronin, a Colorado College professor and co-author of "Colorado Politics and Policy: Governing a Purple State," of TABOR's passage.

The Texas billionaire did, however, crack Colorado's relative political solidarity.

Bill Clinton, thanks to Perot's wedge, was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Colorado since 1964, part of the national landslide for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater. Before that, the state supported Harry Truman over Thomas Dewey in 1948.

The spirit didn't last. Colorado voters backed Bob Dole over Clinton in 1996, 45.8 percent to 44.3, when Perot fell back to only 6.6 percent.

Starting with Clinton in 1992, Colorado has supported the Democratic candidate three times and the Republican three times.

Since statehood in 1876, the state has backed 22 Republicans in presidential elections, 12 Democrats and one Populist (James B. Weaver in 1892).

"Each election is almost a completely separate event," Cronin said of Colorado inconsistencies.

The unpredictable voter

Typically, Democratic turnout falls about 20 percent in non-presidential election years, Cronin said.

Ideology, however, doesn't track with results, at least not in recent years.

In 2012, when President Obama won a second term, Coloradans legalized recreational marijuana. In the 2010 midterm election, voters handily defeated limits on property taxes, blocked personhood rights to a fetus and failed to put a hurdle in front of bringing Obamacare to the state.

Another element of Colorado's quirkiness is that Republican and Democratic moderates aren't as loyal to party principles. That renders them unpredictable, said Secretary of State Wayne Williams, Colorado's chief election supervisor and a former El Paso County Republican Party chairman.

That lack of predictability trickles down the ballot to questions about how the government should operate.

"We have a closely divided state," Williams said. "And because one side has the advantage in one partisan election, the Constitution can get amended as a result."

Once in the Constitution, as TABOR proves, opposition has a nearly impossible task to change or remove it.

Williams said that statutes allow state law to change over time. But constitutional amendments become enshrined, even though they are just as easy to pass as laws in Colorado.

"The Constitution really ought to be reserved for the principles you want to stand for a long time," he said.

Past on the future

Coloradans will find out on Nov. 8 if national mood and the state's tempermental voting history might have offered clues to this year's outcomes, with turbulence at the top of the ticket and an ideological scattershot of issues down the ballot.

"There's an anti-establishment political climate out there right now," said Eric Sondermann, an independent Denver-based political analyst. "I wonder what that says about establishment issues like Amendment 71 (which would make it more difficult to amend the constitution), to be highlighting former governors and ex-mayors endorsing it.

"I'm questioning whether that's the right message in this climate."

He added, "There's just a quirkiness to Colorado, which isn't the only state that's like this, but it makes it fertile ground to get these kind of quirky issues on the ballot.

"It's a much tougher hurdle to get them passed, because voters have seen so many of these issues come and go that they've become pretty discerning."

Since 2010, 18 issues have been on the ballot and seven have passed.

At breakfast in Monument, Helen Taylor said she would be true to her conservative school of thought, declining to say how she will vote on any individual issue, unlike her husband.

"How you vote is about where you stand as a person," she said. "So that's personal."

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