In a stunning decision, Colorado’s highest court ruled six-term incumbent GOP congressman Doug Lamborn should not appear on the June 26 primary ballot.
For 12 years, Lamborn, a conservative politician backed heavily by car dealers, Koch Industries and the defense industry, has represented one of the most heavily Republican parts of the country in a district anchored by Colorado Springs that includes five military installations and a network of religious nonprofits.
At issue was how the Republican incumbent, who faces a multi-candidate primary, chose to try and get on the ballot. He could have gone through the grassroots assembly process and attempted to earn more than 30 percent of the vote among delegates, but he instead chose to try and gather 1,000 valid signatures from Republican voters within his district and petition directly onto the ballot.
His effort was challenged, however, when five constituents brought a lawsuit against the Secretary of State for certifying Lamborn’s petitions. They argued Lamborn’s campaign hired a company that contracted with petition circulators who did not technically live in Colorado at the time they tried to persuade enough Republicans to sign petitions for Lamborn. Petition circulators must be Colorado residents.
A lower court in the lawsuit ruled earlier this month that Lamborn had enough signatures to get on the ballot, but the plaintiffs in the case appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court. In its ruling today, the state’s highest court said the lower court was wrong to rule Lamborn should be on the ballot.
The Supreme Court noted that one of the signature gatherers for Lamborn earlier testified that he owned two cars in California, works there, was registered to vote there, had a driver’s license there— and not in Colorado— and bought a round-trip plane ticket to Colorado where he stayed with his in-laws while gathering petition signatures for Lamborn.
The High Court noted that as “a practical matter, the Secretary’s office is not equipped to further investigate residency or other requirements” after doing a paper review of a petition circulator’s voter registration. The plaintiffs in this case went to court to dig deeper on the residency issue. The court ruled the circulator in question who collected signatures for Lambon did not meet the state’s residency laws.
“That causes the Lamborn Campaign’s number of signatures to fall short of the 1,000 required to be on the Republican primary ballot,” the High Court wrote. “Therefore, the Secretary may not certify Representative Lamborn to the 2018 primary ballot for CD5. We recognize the gravity of this conclusion, but Colorado law does not permit us to conclude otherwise.”
Lamborn told media he was still processing the ruling in the initial hours after it came out. He later issued a statement, saying, “We are disappointed by the outcome and we believe it was wrongly decided. We are immediately bringing an action in federal court to overturn the part of Colorado law that deprives voters who have petitioned to have Congressman Lamborn on the ballot of their Constitutional rights.”
But, “that’s going to be hard,” says Mario Nicolais, who practices election law in Colorado. He says he doubts a federal court would step in and get in the way of a ruling on legal residency by the state’s highest court.
“I don’t think you could find any more clear set of facts that would demonstrate that someone was not a resident of Colorado,” Nicolais says.
Campaigns often hire companies who specialize in gathering signatures in Colorado, and the process has proven controversial in recent years. In 2016, a scandal blew up the large Republican primary for U.S. Senate when media reported forgery in the petition process.
Three Republican candidates that year had to sue their way onto the ballot. The 2016 ballot debacle led to new, stricter rules for the petition-gathering process. State officials cross-check signatures against official records and verify a voter’s signature.
This year, more than double the number of candidates are trying to petition onto the ballot than in 2016.
Lamborn was one of them.
The last time he ran for re-election, in 2016, he got on the ballot through the assembly process, but nearly did not make it. That year, during the county assembly, a then 32-year-old political newcomer named Calandra Vargas unexpectedly challenged him on the spot. He narrowly survived, making the primary ballot by just 18 votes after Vargas gave an impassioned speech.
This year, Lamborn took a different route.
The firm Lamborn’s campaign hired to handle his petition drive was also used by Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton. After allegations that his circulators might have gathered petitions fraudulently, Stapleton ditched his petition effort and decided to go through the assembly, likely escaping his own lawsuit over ballot access.
Eric Walker, spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party, pounced on the latest news from the court in the Lamborn case and used it to tag Stapleton in a line that isn’t likely to go away during the campaign.
“Simple question,” he asked. “If you can’t be trusted to oversee a signature-gathering operation without committing fraud, why on earth should Coloradans trust you to hold elected office?”
The GOP primary for Colorado’s 5th Congressional District is already crowded and includes El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, State Sen. Owen Hill, retired Texas Judge Bill Rhea, and former Green Mountain Falls mayor Tyler Stevens.
Stephany Rose Spaulding is the Democratic nominee for the seat.