By Professor Bob Loevy, Political Science – Colorado College
The recall of Colorado State Senator John Morse in State Senate District 11 in Colorado Springs was a major reverse for supporters of regulating firearms in the United States. Voters both recalled Morse, who is a Democrat, and elected a Republican to serve out the remaining one year of Morse’s term in the State Senate.
Morse was a major target for the anti-gun control forces. The first Democrat elected to the Colorado State Senate from Colorado Springs in many decades, he was the President of the Colorado State Senate and an outspoken supporter of firearms regulation.
In my opinion, bad luck had a major role to play in John Morse’s electoral demise:
Bad Luck 1: Colorado state senators are divided into two groups, each group serving a four-year term. One group is elected in presidential elections, when voter turnout is high for both the presidential election and the accompanying state senate election. Since the number of signatures required on a recall petition is based on a percentage of the voters who cast ballots in the last election, the number of signatures required to recall state senators in presidential election years, when turnout is very high, is also high. John Morse had the misfortune of being elected in a gubernatorial, rather than a presidential, election year, when voter turnout tends to be low. That dramatically lowered the number of signatures required to force John Morse into a recall election.
Bad Luck 2: The Libertarian Party went to court and succeeded in getting more time to gather signatures to put a Libertarian candidate on the recall election ballot. This move took away the time required to have a mail-in election and resulted in all the votes being cast in person in voting centers. This was a disaster for Morse, because mail-in elections greatly increase voter turnout, particularly among Democratic voters. I think Morse would have easily defeated the recall and stayed in office if it had been a mail-in election.
Bad Luck 3: Advancing technology played a role in putting the recall of John Morse on the ballot. The anti-gun control forces used smart phones that had the Senate District 11 voter registration lists on them. Whenever someone offered to sign the recall petition, the anti-gun control forces could instantly check to see if that person really was a registered voter in District 11. That eliminated the problem of persons signing the petition who were not registered voters in State Senate District 11 and who would have to be weeded out of the list later by election officials. Thanks to this new technology, when the anti-gun control forces turned in their petition list, they knew for sure that every signature was valid and the recall would qualify for the ballot.
Although it appears the Republican Party had little to do with instigating the recall of John Morse, the Republicans woke up to the opportunity presented by the recall and succeeded in uniting their party behind a single Republican candidate – former Colorado Springs City Councilmember Bernie Herpin. After an ad hoc vote by a gathering of local Republican leaders, a second Republican candidate was prevailed upon to drop out of the race. This kept John Morse from having two or more opponents running against him. That removed the opportunity for Morse to win in a three-way or four-way race with the anti-gun control vote split between two or more candidates.
What I am arguing here is that the conditions under which the election was conducted had as much to do with John Morse’s recall as the election contest itself.
As for the election itself, it was instantly subject to what I call “magnification.” Because John Morse had been forced into a recall election by opponents of increased firearms regulation, the election immediately took on statewide and then national significance. The election became a referendum on the overall issue of regulating firearms. In the end, the election was more about how voters felt about gun control than about whether John Morse, a Democrat, or Bernie Herpin, a Republican, would be their state senator.
The “magnification” of the election resulted in the “concentration” of the election. Suddenly national news media and national lobby groups on both sides of the gun control issue were “concentrating” their election expertise and their campaign funds on what had started out as the simple recall of a Colorado state senator. About three percent of all Colorado voters were actually voting in the election, but national media attention and the campaign money being spent resembled the electoral activity normally associated with a statewide race for Governor or U.S. Senator.
In that regard, the election reminded me of the New Hampshire primary in U.S. presidential nominating contests. New Hampshire is a relatively small state in terms of its voting population, but its “First In The Nation” presidential primary rates unusual amounts of media interest and campaign spending, just as the Morse recall election did in State Senate District 11.
In the recall election campaign itself between John Morse and Bernie Herpin, it seemed to me that both sides ran away from the gun control issue. That was particularly true for John Morse, who in television spot ads emphasized his role as a police chief and a legislative leader rather than as a fighter for more gun control. His ads that I saw never mentioned the human tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado, the movie theater incident in Aurora, Colorado, or what happened to the elementary school students at Sandy Hook in Connecticut. In my opinion, those were the three best reasons to vote for John Morse. He held three high cards in the election, I thought, but never played them.
The Morse campaign may have had poll results showing that the gun control issue was a loser for them. As for me, I regret that the Morse campaign did not acknowledge what the election was really about and base all their advertising and campaigning on the issue of regulating fire arms so as to limit the death toll at such mass massacres as Columbine, Aurora, and Sandy Hook. That way, if they had defeated the recall, Morse’s retention in office would have been a real victory for those who believe in sensible gun control.