Lawmakers on elections: Mail in the ballots

DENVER – State representatives passed an overhaul of Colorado’s elections law Friday that will make voting by mail the standard way elections are run.

The House also passed bills on gas and oil regulation, workplace discrimination and firefighter unions during a busy day at the end of a busy week at the Legislature.

Republicans fought hard against the election bill, which would allow voters to register up to Election Day. It also would ensure all registered voters are sent mail ballots and would close neighborhood polling places in favor of a few centralized voting locations.

“We were completely, totally and utterly iced out of the process, and that does not make better elections law for the people of Colorado,” said House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs.

Republicans warned the bill opens the door to fraud, and it relies on a computer database of voters that needs more testing.

The bill passed on a 36-25 vote that fell strictly along party lines. But Democrats said most county clerks, including La Plata County’s Tiffany Lee Parker, like the bill.

“A very large number of Republicans who are county clerks support this bill. It is truly a bipartisan effort,” said the sponsor, House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Gunbarrel.

Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, voted for the election bill, but he broke with his party on two other bills Friday.

The first bill would let employees sue their bosses for discrimination and collect punitive damages. The bill would apply to businesses with fewer than 15 employees, which currently are immune from such lawsuits.

McLachlan said he never thought he would vote against a civil-rights bill, but he was concerned about the effect on small businesses. He also doesn’t like the fact that employees could claim punitive damages with a “preponderance of the evidence,” rather than proving wrongdoing beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the standard for punitive damages in other areas of the law.

“That’s a huge difference in the quality of proof needed to award punitive damages,” McLachlan said.

He also voted against a Democratic bill to raise fees on the gas and oil industry to pay for local inspectors.

La Plata County already has a good local regulatory program, and the bill was mainly for Elbert County to raise seed money for inspectors, McLachlan said.

On another gas and oil bill, it was Montrose Republican Rep. Don Coram’s turn to cross party lines. Coram and two other Republicans voted to require companies to report spills as small as one barrel to state regulators. Right now, spills of less than five barrels don’t need to be reported unless they pollute streams.

McLachlan stuck with Democrats on a final controversial bill, which would give firefighters some rights to bargain through unions.

Democrats backed off on their original idea to let firefighters unionize without citizen approval through a vote. Now, the bill allows collective bargaining rights for firefighters on safety and working conditions. But a union would need voter approval to bargain over salary. Strikes would be prohibited.

McLachlan said he respected Durango Fire & Rescue Authority Chief Dan Noonan, who wrote letters lobbying against the bill, but firefighters deserve to be heard.

“The people of the state of Colorado on the whole appreciate that firefighters are entitled to those types of benefits and protections,” McLachlan said.

McLachlan said he understands that Gov. John Hickenlooper has rescinded his threat to veto the bill now that it has been amended.

Cities and fire chiefs still oppose the bill.

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