Voters in Colorado today will decide an unprecedented effort to recall state senators who backed the toughest gun-control laws in a decade, as firearm advocates look to punish lawmakers who embraced the measures after two of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
Recall backers and opponents in this gun-friendly state say outside money is turning the race into a battle between the National Rifle Association and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Bloomberg is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
If backers win their campaign to recall state Senate President John Morse and Senator Angela Giron, both Democrats, Second Amendment advocates are likely to use the victory in next year’s elections to try to oust politicians at the state and federal levels who don’t support their point of view, said Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York in Cortland and author of “The Politics of Gun Control.”
“If the NRA succeeds, they will be crowing about it for months and will carry that battle into 2014,” Spitzer said. “Its real effect is far less than its symbolic effect, but symbols matter.”
Recall efforts began in April, a month after Governor John Hickenlooper, a first-term Democrat, signed measures passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature requiring background checks for all firearms sales and limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines.
The laws, which went into effect July 1, were inspired by a shooting in an Aurora movie theater in July 2012 that killed 12 people and wounded 58. The state was also the site of a 1999 shooting in which two students killed 13 people and themselves at Columbine High School in a Denver suburb.
The legislative drive came just months after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting in December that left 26 students and adults dead.
Advocates on both sides of the recall are working to get out the vote today in a truncated election complicated by numerous procedural changes that confused voters.
Court challenges resulted in six changes to rules governing elections since Hickenlooper announced the recall date on July 18. Republicans in each district are vying to replace the senators.
Morse, who represents conservative Colorado Springs, and Giron, whose constituents are in Pueblo, south of Morse’s district, are the first state lawmakers in Colorado history to be targeted for a recall.
“We were less than two weeks out and we didn’t know what the rules were,” Giron said in an interview. “Were voters going to get a mail ballot, could they get an emergency ballot? On Sunday, when I was canvassing, people still didn’t know they had to go to a polling place to vote and that they could go early.”
In previous elections, as much as 70 percent of Colorado voters cast ballots by mail. Under a new state law, the recall initially was to be entirely decided by mail. That plan changed after clerks in El Paso and Pueblo counties said they didn’t have enough time to send mail-in ballots to voters because of an Aug. 12 court ruling giving potential replacement candidates until Aug. 26 to submit signatures to appear on the ballot.
Now voters in Morse and Giron’s districts must go to polling locations in their county to cast ballots. Many of these sites opened for early voting last week. Despite hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on both sides on prime-time TV ads, radio commercials and mailings, those who showed up to vote early said they were also bewildered by the lead-up to the recall.
“Even one of the county commissioners didn’t understand the rules,” said Christy Le Lait, campaign manager for A Whole Lot of People for John Morse. “We’ve encountered people who are waiting for their mail-in ballot and a lot of people who don’t know they can only vote in this if they live in Senate District 11.”
Overseas and military voters still received mail-in ballots. About 645 were sent to Morse’s constituents and could delay election results, said Ryan Parsell, public information officer for the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder.
“We did have to send out some ballots twice,” he said. “We have military and overseas ballots that could be returned later than Tuesday, so if it’s close, we may not know the outcome until days later.”
Morse, first elected to the Senate in 2006, won re-election in 2010 by just 340 votes in a district that largely reflects the political makeup of Colorado, with Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated residents comprising a third each of registered voters. Under state law, the former police chief and accountant can’t campaign again for his senate seat after his second term ends in 2014.
Hickenlooper jumped into the fray yesterday, issuing a statement addressing reports that early voters were arriving at the polls asking to cast a ballot and then walking away when they received one.
“We are hearing disturbing reports that some people are being encouraged to go to the polls, not to legitimately vote, but to disrupt the process,” Hickenlooper said. “We urge the county clerks in Pueblo and El Paso counties to make clear that people engaged in attempting to disrupt the elections are open to criminal prosecution.”
Recall backers were encouraged by early voting results in Colorado Springs that showed that 40 percent of the 12,174 people who voted by 4:25 p.m. yesterday were Republican, 33 percent were Democrat and 25 percent were unaffiliated, with the remainder belonging to the Libertarian, Green or other parties.
“It has a good feel to it,” said Laura Carno, a Black Forest resident and founder of several groups that contributed to recall efforts. “We had 100 women walk the district on Saturday. When they got back, the overall word was that they were very encouraged by what they heard at the doors.”
Le Lait, the director of Morse’s election committee, said that the recall isn’t necessarily partisan and that early voting tallies don’t foretell the election’s outcome.
“We had 200 canvassers out on Saturday,” she said, including Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, the parents of Jessica Ghawi, who was killed in the Aurora theater shooting. “I think we hit like 12,000 doors.”
Registered Republicans in Morse’s district didn’t all cast votes along party lines.
“I voted to recall Morse because I think he has contempt for his constituents,” said Daniel Cole, executive director of the El Paso County Republican Party, who lives in Morse’s district. “He’s made public comments about not reading his constituents’ e-mails.”
Morse said during the debate on the gun bills that he received thousands of e-mails, a majority from outside his district, that were negative and nasty and that he didn’t read them, Le Lait said.
Voters in Morse’s district said they received automated calls in the past few weeks from recall backers pointing out a $350,000 contribution by Bloomberg to Denver-based Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy, which donated money to A Whole Lot of People for John Morse and Pueblo United for Angela, according to records kept by the Secretary of State.
The National Rifle Association’s Committee to Restore Coloradans’ Rights reported to the Secretary of State that it raised about $253,035 between Aug. 23 and Aug. 29, all of it contributed by the Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA Institute for Legislative Action.
Residents in both Morse’s and Giron’s districts said they also received numerous mail advertisements.
“I’ve had two to five mailers in my mail every stinking day -- that’s a lot of money spent for print,” said Karole Campbell, 49, a registered Republican in Manitou Springs who said she plans to vote against the recall. “It’s gotten to the point where I can’t even read them because I can’t tell who is advocating for what.”