Colorado Town Debates Mandatory Voting Law

"I had to think about the implications for the town, was it really feasible to do this?" Willits said.

The town attorney warned Willits that the town was sure to have a legal battle on its hands.

"Does the town want to put up the cost of defending themselves?" Willits said.

Ridgway has a working yearly budget of about $1 million, Willits said, and although he acknowledged the typically low voter turnout for local and national elections, the town could ill afford a legal battle.

"For the last six weeks, there's been some interesting discussion about all of this," Willits said. "We need to do something in this country, it's something interesting to think about on a national level but I don't think it's Ridgway's flag to carry."

As the debate heated up in the past few weeks, resident Eric Sanford wrote a letter to the Ridgway Sun, saying, he would "enjoy the privilege of being the first to file a lawsuit against the Town of Ridgway and individual members of the Town Council."

Willits said general voter apathy would likely seem "abhorrent" to the Founding Father's but perhaps that's the way it should be.

"I worry about Americans taking the time to be informed before they vote, maybe we should be a country where 40 or 50 percent vote, maybe that's just the way it is," he said.

Willits also worried about the constitutionality of the mandate. "I started talking to folks, and they all said it was interesting, but is it constitutional?" Willits said.

David Hudson, a First Ammendment scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., said the proposal went too far.

"To me, this sounds like a form of thought control and the First Amendment protects, indeed safeguards, freedom of thought," Hudson said.

Hudson said even if there were a section for people to mark "none of the above," it still would be an example of governmental overreaching.

"Not every person who chooses not to vote is lazy," Hudson said. "While Justice Louis Brandeis may have been correct years ago when he wrote 'the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people,' the government should not overstep its bounds and actually force people to vote.

"Just as the First Amendment protects our right to speak and not to speak, we should have the right to vote and not to vote."

Willits said there are other hot-button issues in Ridgway, a town of mostly dirt roads 35 miles from its economic furnace, the Telluride Ski Mountain, with one foot in the Old West and one foot in progressive growth. Aside from mandatory voting, he said, there's heated debate about a resident's keeping an illegal rooster.

"I don't think it's a possibility for Ridgway," he said of imposing mandatory voting.

Hennessy is hopeful, however, despite missing his change for the April elections. He's aiming for the November ballot.

"If you can't bother to vote, how could you ever defend this country?" he asked. "I don't see anything bad that could come of this, only good things."

For now, Hennessy has been invited to share his idea with the Ouray County Commissioners but will have to continue the debate mostly from behind the bar at his pub.

If the initiative ever makes the ballot, Hennessey said he'd have no problem if residents voted it down, or if the turnout for the vote was low.

"I guess that would prove my point," he said.

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