EDITORIAL: Keyser ballot fraud conundrum points out need for election reform

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A Denver judge this week made the sensible ruling in dismissing clear-cut claims of voter fraud on a GOP senate candidate’s primary petitions, but the conundrum underscores the serious need for election reform.

The lawsuit filed by Democrat activists against former state Rep. Jon Keyser is just the latest in a blizzard of problems in a crowded GOP race to unseat Democrat incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet in November.

The election so far — whittling 13 GOP hopefuls down to what, as of today, appears to be five contenders on the GOP primary ballot — has been a virtual cavalcade of comedy as novice and veteran politicians have been tripped up in collecting signatures to force their names on GOP party ballots.

The Colorado Secretary of State and local courts have ruled three of the five candidates on and off the ballot several times, as required signatures turned out to be insufficient and, in Keyser’s case, clearly fraudulent.

That mess came to light after Denver7 reporter Marshall Zelinger began broadcasting stories that as many as 20 names on Keyser’s nomination petitions were obviously forged. The tossed lawsuit pinned the number of forgeries closer to 60. Because so many of the signatures had previously been ruled insufficient by state officials, it raised the question of whether Keyser should remain on the ballot.

But Denver District Court Judge Morris Hoffman didn’t even entertain the question when he ruled on Tuesday that state law made it clear the timeline for investigating fraudulent signatures had already passed.

Both the law and Hoffman’s ruling make sense, even though they work against fair and credible elections. Deadlines for election officials to print and distribute mail ballots in every election are already so tight, there really was no option given that the unyielding schedule for all the moving parts of a complicated election were set more than a year ago. At some point, candidates’ names have to be certain.

But the system also allows for a candidate to appear on the ballot despite not meeting the requirements. That was made clear in the deal struck between the SOS office and Ryan Frazier’s campaign. Some candidates were given more time to argue their legal cases than others.

The entire charade has made a mockery of Colorado’s election system and cast a cloud over elections officials as to whether they have the resources or even the ability to accurately root out fraud and error.

Since the primary process is essentially a function of political parties, they can do pretty much anything they want as far as making up rules to create a primary ballot. The recent GOP ballot signature free-for-all illustrates that the current system is nothing more than an expensive and cumbersome charade allowing wealthy or well-connected candidates to bypass the nominating process. These four Republican Senate campaigns show this is nothing more than pay to play, and the courts want no part in jumping in to referee party squabbles over squishy rules and dates.

It’s safe to assume that in just about every case, petition signers have no compulsion to sign to get a candidate on the ballot, other than they want the paid petition circulator to go away.

Colorado political parties should be precluded from using the petition system to nominate candidates since it’s nothing more than an inconvenient and expensive waste of everyone’s time and money. Let the state’s political parties figure out another way to poll members to determine preferred primary ballot candidates.

State lawmakers should ensure, however, that when the Secretary of State’s office takes up the task of inspecting signatures for statewide ballot questions, that the results are meaningful. In this case, the findings of the secretary of state’s office were set aside by courts, indicating that either the rules, the process or the people involved are flawed.

As to whether Keyser should continue his candidacy, knowing that there’s a very real chance he wouldn’t have made the ballot had the system worked as it was intended to, that’s a matter for his party, his campaign and his conscience. Since it’s clear this nominating petition process is nothing more than a pay-to-play scheme, Keyser’s campaign paid they money, so let him play. It has nothing to do with the merits of Keyser’s campaign, and addresses only the peculiarities of the law.

Republican voters will be the ultimate judge on the character and actions of all of these candidates and how they’ve handled moving past this laughable rubicon.