Denver Post and CNN Pretend Colorado Gun Control Recall Election Did Not Turn On Voter Suppression

Human Rights

Two influential media outlets—CNN and The Denver Post—are ignorantly defending the National Rifle Association-led ouster of two Colorado state senators in a recent recall by saying that low voter turnout was not caused by intentional partisan voter suppression.

“Nonsense,” the Denver Post editorialized late last week. “They [gun control proponents] were no less able to get to the polls than folks on the other side. If a disproportionate number of her supporters failed to vote, it’s because they chose not to.”

The editorial was a tart reply to a CNN interview with of one the ousted state senators, Democrat Angela Giron, where CNN’s Brooke Baldwin cut off Giron as she started talking about voter suppression, insisting that they return to the “meat of the story,” which Baldwin said was big money from out-of-state that bought political ads.

But voter suppression—raising barriers to casting a ballot—was a big factor in why gun-control proponents lost. Of course, the ads mattered, as did get-out-the-vote efforts. But what made the Colorado gin-control recall vote especially disconcerting was the less-noticed fact that a wealthy libertarian bankrolled a legal strategy to disrupt the vote.

“Those were two hard losses we had in Colorado Springs and Pueblo,” Amy Runyon-Harms,
Executive Director, ProgressNow Colorado, wrote in an e-mail after the Sept. 10 special election. “We can Monday morning quarterback the fact that legal challenges took away the option for people to vote with mail ballots, the most common way Coloradans vote these days. We can… make sure we learn from our mistakes.”   

One of those mistakes would not be recognizing what voter suppression looks like today and how it works. It occurs when partisans make it harder for opponents to vote. That can happen many ways. Polling place hours can be curtailed. Tougher ID requirements can be imposed, making it are harder for young or poor people to get needed documents.

Or, as in Colorado, a suit can be filed over an arcane issue and a state court can rule and in the process upend the way that people are used to voting. That discourages all but the most die-hard partisans—in this case, the gun-obsessed NRA and Tea Partiers obsessed with century-old state constitutional provisions—from figuring out how to vote. 

In Colorado, where 70 percent of voters cast their ballots by mail, a wealthy libertarian businesswoman who did not even live in the county where the recalls were taking place sued to prevent the local election officials from mailing recall ballots to registered voters. Election law can be complicated and her attorneys exploited the fine print. Her lawsuit cited a conflict between the state’s Constitution concerning the timetable for minor party candidates to qualify for a recall ballot—up to 15 days before the vote—and the longer timetable used by local election offices for printing and distributing mail-in ballots. That conflict has bothered third-party candidates for years, but, as is always the case in these kind of fights, there’s more to it than the fine print trotted in court.

Voter suppressors—in this instance, the Colorado Republican Party, the NRA and Aspen-based libertarian Marilyn Marks—did not like the idea of more people with easier access to voting than not. So they found a way to throw a legal wrench into the electoral process where the nuts and bolts of voting were unclear until the last minute.

“Marilyn Marks is certainly a pain in our necks in Pueblo,” wrote one voter to The Post. 24% of Pueblo voters are disabled. Marks, through her disingenous actions to throw out mail ballot elections, has disenfranchised disabled voters in Pueblo. She pushed these unqualified and probably unelectable candidates (Richard Anglund’s a one-issue gun rights activist candidate, and Gordon Butt has never held public office,) to file this frivolous lawsuit, for only one reason: to further her ‘jihad’ against mail in ballots.”

These complex, messy and clearly partisan factors were dismissed by CNN’s Brooke Baldwin in her interview with Giron and by the ensuing Denver Post editorial on Friday.

“We know what really happened here,” Giron told CNN. “What this story really is about is voter suppression. When 70 percent of Coloradans vote by mail and we didn’t have access to that mail ballot…” But Baldwin said that she would “cut off” that discussion and started asking about money coming into the race from gun control proponents like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “What happened?” Baldwin repeated.  

“I’m telling you what happened,” Giron repeated. “When you had only 30,000 of the voters, who, in the last election, the last off-year election, [the turnout] was 45,000. So, of the people who are in support of very common sense gun legislation weren’t able to get to the polls. They vote by [mail] ballot. They have been doing that for 25 years. We have to call it for what it is.”   

Calling it for what it is means recognizing that voter suppression can take many forms. While progressives will have to work even harder to motivate their base in low turnout elections such as 2014’s midterms—as every vote arguably has more weight when fewer people vote—mainstream media also must understand what voter suppression is about and how it works.

The Denver Post editorial page, and CNN’s Brooke Baldwin failed that test.

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