An “Accidental Constitution:” Raise the Bar

This post needs to start with a confession: my knowledge of politics in the U.S. has historically been woefully small. In my defense, I was raised overseas and spent years scrambling to catch up with my peers on rudimentary civics knowledge. I’ll never forget sitting in my first political science class in college and thinking to myself, “what the heck are the Articles of Confederation,” and, “School House Rock, you really failed me.” I tell you this because, if it sounds like I’m dumbing this down, that’s not my intention; I just don’t assume we all have a fount of knowledge about government.

Onward!

The Colorado Constitution has a long and illustrious history. You can truly fall down a rabbit hole of Wikipedia articles learning about the stuttering start of it, but I am here to be your trusty summarizer (not of Wikipedia, just the facts). We start here because if you have no idea what the problem is, why would you care about fixing it?

Our constitution was ratified a hundred years into our great nation’s history (hint: that’s why we’re officially called the Centennial State, even though that’s not quite as jazzy as Colorful Colorado). At this point, a solid framework was set for how state constitutions were written. Our original constitution played nice with expectations, with some oddities thrown in, because we are the Wild West after all.

Then came 1910. DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNN. It was at this point in our state’s history that direct democracy came into play. Direct democracy is the idea that I, Anna Q. Citizen, through various avenues, can work to change things in my state constitution and statutes without having to go directly through the legislature. There were all kinds of verbiage and amendments that went down in 1910, but what is relevant here and now is that I can just as easily start a ballot initiative to amend the Colorado Constitution as I can start a ballot initiative to create a statute.

Blink blink. “So? Isn’t it great that you have a voice, Anna Q. Citizen?”

It sure is, because I like to talk. BUT (the dreaded but - stick with me, it’s worth it I promise), statutes and constitutional amendments are not the same thing and they should not be interchangeable.

The Colorado Constitution is our framework, our foundation as a state, similar to the Constitution of the United States of America. It outlines how we govern, not necessarily what we govern.

Statutes, on the other hand, are laws. This is where change should happen. The nuts and bolts of daily life, within the context of our Constitutional framework. Citizens should be able to influence both, but our constitution should be better protected than simple statutes.

Constitutions should be slow to change and involve fundamental issues. Statutes should be where hot topic issues are dealt with, so that they are able to be applied properly and upheld in the legal system in a healthy way.

Constitutions should change like so:

But currently Colorado’s Constitution changes a little more like this:

Why? Because to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, it only takes 100,000 signatures on a petition without regard to geographic representation.

*Fun fact: you can do that without ever leaving Denver.

This means the process by which you amend the Colorado Constitution, our bedrock, can be completed without ever hearing voices from all areas of the state. It also means companies with big bucks can come in, pay people to hang out at Safeway in Denver, and impact our bedrock governing document.

Currently, our State Constitution has 150 amendments. The US Constitution has 27.

In the last ten years, there have been dozens of proposed constitutional amendments. Only two proposed statutes.

That’s a mess, y’all.

Let me show you why with an example.

I, Anna Q. Citizen, feel passionately that in the state of Colorado all cats should wear pants. I want all my peers to have the opportunity to vote for this because I just know that they will agree with me. Awesome. A statute is a great place for my cat pants issue. If voted in as a statute, then it would become a law. A law that can be argued in court, and adjusted to various issues. “Fine, you put your cats in dresses, you don’t have to put pants on them too. That is a reasonable exception,” so sayeth the judge.

BUT (there it is again), why settle for that when I can get it put in the Colorado Constitution that all cats have to wear pants?! It’s just as easy, and that way there’s no arguing it. It’s the Constitution. So, I get it on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, and it passes. Joe Schmoe is appalled that this has become part of the Constitution, so the next year he starts his ballot initiative saying cats cannot wear pants. It passes (really voters, read up on things, don’t just willy nilly vote), as a constitutional amendment. “Excuse me, isn’t that conflicting and confusing?” Thanks for asking; it sure is.

And, to make matters worse, let’s take the example one step further. Say it is no longer Anna Q. Citizen, cat loving, concerned Coloradan, but Anna Q. Citizen, CEO of Cat Pants International who gets involved. She lives in a far off state, but knows that Colorado is prime for the picking when it comes to making constitutional amendments. She uses her pile of money to pay people to get the needed 100,000 signatures to get her cat pants amendment on the ballot, as opposed to getting it on the ballot as a proposed statute. Change is now not even coming from a citizen, rather a big corporation whose interests are probably not in line with the everyday Coloradan.

This is why the Colorado Constitution is well on its way to becoming totally bananas. Something has to change.

Constitutions are our framework, our foundation. There should be a process to amend, but it should be slow and steady and factor in diverse and representative voices. Thats where Raise the Bar, Protect our Constitution comes in.

Raise the Bar will be on the ballot this November. This initiative will change:

1.       The signatures needed to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Colorado would need to come from at least 2% of registered voters in each of the state’s 35 senate districts. This means that access to the ballot will involve the entire state, not just the I-25 corridor.

2.       It would change the requirement for passage from a simple majority (50% of voters +1 person) to 55%.

3.       Nothing about initiating or passing statutes changes.

Raise the Bar is a win-win. Voices can still be heard. Cats can still wear pants. All of this in the appropriate place, as state statutes. Our constitution will be protected. Nothing about cats will be added to the foundational document of our state. At least, not without representing 2% of geographically diverse registered voters in the initiative process and 55% of those voting for it once it’s on the ballot..

Click here. You know you want to.