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Colorado strikes a blow for voting reform

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It hasn’t gotten the national attention it deserves, but a sweeping measure to overhaul elections in Colorado is swiftly moving towards passage — one that could function as a model for other voting reformers in other states, and perhaps even nationally. The Colorado measure will represent a big step forward, because it sticks to the most fundamental principle that most reformers think should guide our efforts to fix voting: That voting should be made easier for as many people as possible.

This, at a time when conservative groups are working to restrict voting in the name of “voter fraud.” As Reid Wilson recently put it, the Colorado measure is “the Democratic comeback to voter ID.”

Reform advocates who have been briefed on Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s plans tell me they expect him to sign the legislation tomorrow. The measure, which has cleared both houses in Colorado, contains a number of key provisions. It requires a ballot to be mailed to every registered voter; voters choose how to vote, whether by mail or dropping off the ballot, or even in person, early or on election day. It lengthens the early voting period and shortens the time required for state residency in order to qualify to vote. It expands voter registration through Election Day. And it allows people to vote at any precinct within their county.

“The biggest problem is people showing up at the wrong precinct,” Ellen Dumm, spokesperson for Coloradans for Voter Access and Modernized Elections, tells me. “This is unique in that expands all options. It really does expand access to voting at a time when we’ve seen a lot of restriction of voting. This makes voting a lot easier.”

Republicans in Colorado strongly opposed the measure, arguing that it could facilitate vote fraud, and it comes after a number contentious legislative battles. But to reformers, what’s notable about this campaign is that even some Republicans — those who bureaucratically grapple with voting problems, that is — could support it. “We never would have gotten this passed without county clerks and county commissioners who are Republican,” Dumm says.

The coalition that came together to get this passed included those clerks and commissioners, and also national liberal groups such as Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and unions such as AFSCME.

Indeed, this measure is passing without getting tied up in the contentious argument over voter ID — which conservatives have been pushing to make subject to more stringent standards, igniting a number of state-level battles with voting rights advocates who believe such efforts are only about restricting voting among core Democratic constituencies. The current proposal does not change voter ID requirements — yet at the same time, it accomplishes the general goal of making voting easier.

After voting problems on Election Day 2012 led to voters standing in line for literally hours, Obama casually remarked in passing during his victory speech that it is time to fix that problem. It’s unclear how or when this is going to happen on the federal level, but the Colorado measure is not a bad lodestar. “It’s a step in the right direction that other states could follow,” Dumm says. “This ought to be the baseline for what we’re doing: How do we make it as simple as possible for voters to vote, rather than putting as many obstacles in the way that we can?”