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Colorado tribes could be the first to get automatic voter registration under a new bill

Lucas Brady Woods

Vast stretches of mountains, alpine forests, and deserts along Colorado’s southwest border are home to the state’s two Native American tribes - the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute. Both are sovereign nations, with their own governments and voting systems.

Tribal members can vote in Colorado elections, but for them, the voter registration process is not as straightforward as it is for other Coloradans.

“The registration process I looked at is kind of confusing. It's lengthy,” the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s general counsel, Peter Ortego, said.

Ortego says a number of tribal members register to vote when they get Colorado drivers’ licenses, but that’s a barrier to voting access for the many who don’t drive.

On top of that, the size and remoteness of the tribes’ reservations can make it challenging for some tribal members to reach polling places and ballot drop boxes during an election. The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute reservations cover almost one million acres, with a combined population of under 4,000.

A newly-introduced bill at the State Capitol, Senate Bill 276, could change that, however, by expanding automatic voter registration to both of the tribes’ reservations. According to the bill, the tribes’ governments would submit lists of eligible voters to the state government, which will then send a confirmation letter to the individual voter. The bill would also guarantee that on-reservation vote centers are in place for early voting and on Election Day.

“In the long run, it'll increase the tribal members' participation in the electoral process. I think it's worth it to do what we can to make sure that anybody who wants to vote has easy access to voting.” Ortego said. “I want to make sure that the tribal members are getting treated at least equal to everybody else.”

Ortego says Tribal leaders specifically requested some of the provisions, and state lawmakers worked directly with them to craft parts of the bill.

“We've been working closely with the Ute Mountain Ute and the Southern Ute Tribes around this,” Bill sponsor and Senate President Steve Fenberg said. “We're excited to be the first state in the country to pilot a program like this. So hopefully it will increase access participation amongst Native folks in Colorado.”

The bill also makes several additional changes to Colorado election law outside the reservations' borders.

“This is a bill that, in a lot of ways, is just a continuation of improving our election system,” Fenberg said. “We have, I would say, one of the best election systems in the country. It's proven to be very accessible. It's proven to be very secure. But we obviously can always make improvements.”

The bill includes a few efforts to streamline election results. It would require Colorado’s larger counties to start counting ballots at least four days before Election Day. Clerks would also have to update “cured” ballot data within twenty four hours for voters who fix an issue on their ballot.

It also would increase funding for local election administration and transparency around campaign finance. Candidates would have to post information on any active employment contracts they have, although they would not have to post their financial compensation.

The measure would also specifically block the Department of State from using public funds for advertising that features candidates for local, state or federal office. Secretary of State Jena Griswold appeared in commercials last year ahead of her reelection.

“The best research available shows that countering disinformation requires proactive communications and is most effective when delivered by trusted messengers,” the Secretary of State’s Office said in a written statement to KUNC. “The Secretary of State is one of the most trusted messengers on elections. This provision would also restrict the Department’s ability to promote Business and Licensing programs in conjunction with other State agencies as it has done in the past.”

The bill does not include provisions to restrict discretionary recounts, either, a provision Griswold called for. In a statement last month, she said she wanted to limit discretionary recounts unless the results of a race are within a 2% margin. But Senate President Fenberg said such a provision would undermine confidence in Colorado’s elections.

“We want to increase confidence in our elections and not remove options for people, especially if someone is an election denier,” he said. “I don't want to do something that feeds into that conspiracy by saying you can't do a recount unless it's, you know, within 2%.”

The bill would also increase the number of ballot drop boxes on campus at public and private colleges and universities and direct sheriffs to make registration and voting more accessible to inmates.

It’s up for a hearing in the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs committee Thursday.

Copyright 2023 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Lucas Brady Woods