Sept 25, 2020 | By Flora Block | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian

This November, Colorado voters will see a new initiative on their ballot: “Citizen Qualification of Electors.” Ballot Initiative 76 seeks to amend the Colorado Constitution to change one word in Section 1 of Article VII, in order to explicitly prohibit people who are not citizens from voting in Colorado elections.

As it stands, this section of the Constitution states that “every citizen of the United States who has attained the age of eighteen years, has resided in the state for such time as may be prescribed by law, and has been duly registered as a voter if required by law shall be qualified to vote at all elections.” The proposed Initiative 76 calls for the amendment of the first two words of this section to, “Only a citizen of the United States … shall be qualified to vote at all elections.”

In addition to explicitly barring non-citizens from voting in Colorado, this initiative also has the effect of prohibiting seventeen-year-olds from voting, by codifying the voting age of eighteen. Seventeen-year-olds, eligible to vote in general elections, were enfranchised in August of 2019 to vote in primary elections. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado, in the 2019 primary election, over 10,000 seventeen-year-olds participated by voting, demonstrating the electoral power of this young voter base.

The power of language within this initiative is not lost on Citizens United, a national organization based out of Florida, which has poured over one million dollars in funding to receive widespread support for the amendment. After achieving 200,000 signatures (roughly 75,000 more than the required 124,632 signatures), the initiative has secured its place on the 2020 ballot.

Citizen Voters believes that this relatively small amendment to the Constitution will prevent non-citizens from voting in Colorado elections. The organization has already proposed this initiative in several states, including Florida and North Dakota. According to the ACLU of Colorado, Citizen Voters has demonstrated a state-by-state approach to passing this initiative nationwide.

The Secretary of State’s office maintains that Colorado already bars non-citizens from voting in state and federal elections. However, Colorado is a home-rule state, meaning that the Secretary of State permits specific cities and counties to allow non-citizen voter participation in lower level school board and municipal elections.

In an interview with former Republican state representative, Joe Stengel, he said that despite prohibiting laws, non-citizens do vote in Colorado. However, he offered no evidence to substantiate this claim, and maintained that non-citizens should not vote “regardless” of the level of election in question. According to Stengel, the initiative intends to codify the Constitution’s language to explicitly prohibit non-citizens from voting in Colorado state, municipal, county, and school board elections.

Stengel maintained that Section 1 of Article VII, as it stands, does not include clear language against non-citizen voting, and that this initiative intends to secure the rights of citizen voters to participate in elections. Stengel elaborated on his belief in the exclusive right for citizens to participate in any election, stating that “voting is a right of citizenship” that should not be “diluted” by non-citizen voters.

In an interview with Julian Camera from the ACLU of Colorado, he explained what the ACLU believes to be the intention behind this initiative: fear mongering of voter fraud, and subsequent dispersion of misinformation. Camera said that the real goal of Amendment 76 is to “perpetuate the false narrative that [non-citizens] are voting in our elections when they’re not.” Camera said that “voter fraud is so uncommon that it’s less than 0.0025 percent of voters across America.”

The ACLU of Colorado is a part of the Campaign for Real Election Protection (CREP), a coalition of several Colorado non-profit organizations, and the major opposition group to the initiative. Their campaign against the initiative launched Tuesday, Sept. 23.

Further elucidating the potential impact of Amendment 76, Camera defined Colorado as a “leading state of voter law and voter accessibility,” with an amply supported mail-in voting system and access to same day voter registration. He said that if this initiative were to pass in Colorado, it would set a precedent for other states to follow suit. Citizen Voters has already proposed and passed this initiative in North Dakota in 2018 as well as in Arizona over 50 years ago, and are now targeting Colorado to “set the tone for other states.”

According to Camera, Ballot Initiative 76 pushes “an anti-immigrant agenda, [and] creates confusion amongst immigrant voters,” which he later claimed parallels the national rhetoric against immigrants: “It is immigrants that [the Trump administration is] targeting, whether they’re citizens or non-citizens … it’s more about that goal to disenfranchise immigrants as a whole.”

In an interview with Hannah Martin, from the Accompaniment and Sanctuary Coalition of Colorado Springs, she agreed that Ballot Initiative 76 openly targets immigrants, including those who have already become naturalized citizens, and thus have the legal right to vote. She said that the intention behind this initiative is to “spread misinformation,” and confuse immigrant voters about their citizenship status and right to vote, thereby disempowering a large voter base that could oppose the current administration.

According to Martin, this initiative follows federal trajectories of voter disenfranchisement, and is fundamentally based in a “fear of losing power.” Martin claimed that this initiative, and other such methods of voter misinformation and confusion, are enacted by politicians and people in power in an attempt to discourage dissenting populations, such as immigrants and young people, from voting.

According to Martin, the purpose of Amendment 76 is to secure and maintain power, and to silence voices of dissent through the continued imposition of fear. In relation to the recent federal disenfranchisement efforts, Martin said that “this administration has instilled fear [of] anybody who doesn’t look like me, who doesn’t think like me, who doesn’t vote like me … we’re just living in constant fear of anything that’s taking away our own power.”

Martin said that because of the simplicity of this initiative, people who are uneducated about the initiative, and who have internalized this fear of difference, may support Amendment 76 without knowing its true impact: “They’re trying to make it simple enough so people who are unaware but who are afraid, are going to vote ‘yes.’” According to Martin, it is the covert nature of this ballot initiative that makes it such a dangerous precedent.

Ballot Initiative 76 has arisen in a pivotal election year, and in the wake of the Trump administration’s public condemnation of the mail-in voting system, voter and election fraud, and attempts this summer to defund the U.S. Postal Service. According to the ACLU of Colorado and other oppositional groups, Ballot Initiative 76 parallels this federal strategy of disenfranchisement.

Citizen Voters understands the power of language. So do their opposers. Ballot Initiative 76 is emblematic of this immense power. Just two words could change the electorate.

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