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Springs lawmaker files challenge to 'ballot selfie' law

October 21, 2016 Updated: October 21, 2016 at 11:20 pm
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A local legislator plans to take legal action against the state for a law that prohibits voters from sharing photos of their completed ballots on social media.

State Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, will file a complaint Monday suing the state government over the law, which he called an attack on free speech.

"If people choose to display who they're voting for and take pride in the political office, they absolutely should be able to do that," Hill said. "We've got a crucial election coming up, and people need to be able to participate in it without fear of government getting in the way."

The issue gained momentum Thursday, when Denver District Attorney Mitchell R. Morrissey's Office issued a news release reminding voters that it's illegal for anyone to show his or her completed ballot to another person - a law originally designed to prevent citizens from being coerced into voting one way or another, Morrissey's office said.

Under the statute, violations to the law are classified as a misdemeanor that could result in up to a year in jail time or $1,000 fine.

But Secretary of State Wayne Williams was not aware of anyone who had ever faced consequences for violating the law and that the first offense would likely result in a warning.

Williams said the law, which originated in 1891, remains relevant, especially because mail-in ballots mean citizens won't have the same voting privacy they did in polling centers.

"It still serves an important purpose," Williams said. "And it's probably more important now that you have mail ballots than it ever was before."

Caryn Ann Harlos, the spokeswoman for the state's Libertarian Party, also plans on filing a lawsuit against Morrissey and Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman if they do not declare the law unconstitutional by 5 p.m. Wednesday.

"You have the opportunity to either take a stand for the Constitution and free speech, or spend taxpayer dollars to defend a plainly unconstitutional restriction on one of our most basic liberties. Please choose the side of freedom," Caryn's attorney Adam Frank wrote in a letter submitted to the two prosecutors Thursday.

Harlos first learned about the law last week while she was preparing to make a video to post online showing herself filling out her ballot to vote for third-party presidential candidate Gary Johnson and other Libertarian contenders.

"Right now the law is threatening me with a year in jail if I do that," Harlos said. "This is is egregious. Political speech is the most foundational of our speech rights."

During the past two legislative sessions, bills that would change the law were introduced twice, but neither made it out of the first committee hearing.

On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union asked the Morrissey's office to retract the news release, which it called a "misguided 'ballot selfie.'"

The ACLU's statement cites two lawsuits the organization filed in which similar laws in Indiana and New Hampshire were ruled unconstitutional. In 2015, the U.S. District Court of Indiana sided with the ACLU, and last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit struck down New Hampshire's law.

Harlos said the law was likely created for good reason, but is now obselete.

"I don't think it was on anyone's radar until a few days ago," she said.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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