No fact-checking in local election voter guides

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MONUMENT, Colo.– Before ballots are ever mailed, voters get other signs in the mail alerting them to an election.

Statewide, Colorado voters can be accustomed to their “Blue Books.” A comprehensive breakdown of statewide ballot issues including impact on tax payers, the state budget and arguments for and against.

For the state, those arguments are compiled by Democrats and Republicans, working together on a committee to agree on accurate statements for voters to make an informed decision.

For local elections, it’s much more simple, but that might be the problem.

People designated as election officials for municipal, county school district or other local elections are required by law to accept arguments describing the pros and cons of a given initiative.

“That process does not include a fact-checking component,” said Jackie Burhans. “So, anybody can submit anything. We wanted to make sure to get out what we felt were balanced views on what we’re hearing in the community.”

Burhans is a co-chair for the group Strong D38 Community, the group supporting 4A, a ballot issue that would allow the district to take out a bond in order to build a new elementary school.

Burhans supports 4A herself, though, the statement she submitted for the voter guide was in opposition to the ballot issue.

“They really stole from us the ‘anti’ statement in the voter guide,” said Derek Araje, the author of one of the statements against 4A.

In an open records request, Araje found both Burhans and her husband, James Howald, submitted opposing statements. Because of a 500-word limit state statute sets for the pro/con statements, Araje speculates the two submitted them to water-down the statement he submitted.

Howald and Burhans argue, Araje doesn’t own a monopoly on the opposing statements.

“I don’t know that I felt it necessary that we both [submit statements] but, I felt it necessary to submit some balanced statements. I wrote up min, [Howald] wrote his. We ended up submitting them both, figuring that they wouldn’t both get in.”

There aren’t many requirments Colorado Revised Statute sets for election statements but C.R.S. 1-7-901 sets a few of them:

  • Arguments must be submits 45 days in advance and because that is always a Saturday, arguments must be submitted at noon on the Friday prior to that day
  • Arguments must be submitted by a registered voter inside the relevant district and include that voter’s signature and address
  • Comments must address a singular and specific ballot issue
  • All comments received will be kept on file and summarized in the ballot issue notice.

District 38 had a bond and mill-levy override on the ballot last year, only to be defeated by nearly two votes to one. A statement submitted supporting the ballot issue was submitted, but Burhans says, the person was in the Air Force and not registered in District 38, thus it was not included.

Araje submitted an argument opposing the measure, the only one to do so meaning the election officials printed it in its entirety. Both Araje and Burhans say, voters said the lack of a supporting statement played a role in voting no on the 2018 issues.

Burhans says, the reason she submitted the statement that contradicts her actual views is due to a lack of fact checking.

“The reason I submitted an argument against it is because I feel that in my role, it’s important to know sides of the issue.” said Burhans.

In 2004, then-El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Robert Balink was sued over both these issues. The Court ruled in his favor finding:

“….requiring election officials to examine voters’ good faith and motives in submitting comments on a proposal would present significant freedom of speech concerns.”

The Judge concluded the court does not have the power or ability to change that law, suggesting that power lie in the Colorado General Assembly.

“The legislators can change the rules around this at any time.” said Burhans. “This has been at least 15 years and they haven’t changed the rules.”

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