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Independent candidate spent 2½ years fighting election complaints in Colorado

Paul Jones, who ran for House District 59, says party leaders work against unaffiliated candidates
Paul Jones, an independent, ran against state Rep. Barbara McLachlan for House District 59 in the 2018 general election. (Courtesy photo)

Campaign violations filed twice against 2018 Colorado House District 59 independent candidate Paul Jones have been dismissed with no penalties after 2½ years of settlements and refilings of the claim.

Jones, a Colorado native and lifelong independent voter, retired in 2018 after working at Colorado Parks and Wildlife for 26 years and decided to run as an independent against incumbent state Rep. Barbara McLachlan.

The candidate’s main goal was to remove the partisanship from politics and instead focus on the needs of the community, Jones said.

“Over the last number of years, I’ve watched as the parties have contracted away from the center and moved away from people like me,” Jones said in an interview with The Durango Herald. “In 2016, that was a turning point for me. I no longer saw any place for me in a party.”

At the same time, Jones discovered the growing independent voter bloc in Colorado. Currently, 43% of Colorado’s active registered voters are unaffiliated. Unaffiliated voters have been able to participate in primaries since 2018 in Colorado.

Jones collected signatures to run as an independent candidate. Unlike partisan candidates, independent candidates must collect signatures from registered voters in their district to be able to appear on the ballot. Jones collected more than 400 accepted signatures in House District 59, which includes Durango, Gunnison, Silverton and Pagosa Springs.

Colorado House District 59, currently held by Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango.

He was also endorsed by the group Unite Colorado, a sub-group under Unite America, which operates state and federal political action committees. Unite Colorado supported five independent candidates running for the Colorado General Assembly. All five candidates lost.

Now, Unite has turned to focusing on electoral reform and continuing to back moderate candidates. The group got involved in supporting less conservative GOP members and backed three state House candidates and two state Senate candidates in Colorado in 2020. All won their primaries. Unite America’s PAC donations are fully disclosed to the Federal Elections Commission, and the group is a “movement of Democrats, Republicans and independents,” according to Unite America’s website.

Jones approached Unite when he decided to run, and the organization showed him the ropes of political campaigns, he said. Unite did not respond to a request to comment.

The complaints: Filed and re-filed

Anne Markward, vice chairwoman of the La Plata County Democrats, filed complaints Oct. 26, 2018, with the Secretary of State’s Office against Unite Colorado and against Jones’ candidate campaign, Jones for Colorado. The complaint claimed Unite Colorado coordinated campaign efforts with Jones by using social media campaigns to invite voters to an event with Jones to discuss the independent movement.

“I just knew this wasn’t right. I had been involved in different political campaigns locally ... and groups never work with a candidate,” Markward said in an interview with the Herald.

In filing the complaint, Markward was focused on holding Unite Colorado accountable, she said. She did not expect the case to drag on for 2½ years, she said.

“Big, dark money from out of state has no place in local politics, and I will always fight it,” Markward said. “This is not about Paul Jones. He was their puppet, and I feel badly about it.”

In late November 2018, the complaint was merged with a similar complaint filed by several Colorado Democrats.

Jones said there was no coordination at any time with Unite Colorado, and the complaint was filed to deter opportunities for independent candidates. Jones never sought advice or approval from Unite and did not receive direct financial contributions, according to TRACER reporting. Jones decided early in the race to not solicit or accept contributions from corporations or political action committees, he said.

In 2018, a federal court struck down parts of Colorado’s campaign finance enforcement system as unconstitutional under the Holland v. Williams case. Pre-Holland, everyday citizens were allowed to file complaints with the Secretary of State’s Office.

“Holland was all about your political enemies can’t use the campaign process to hit you and jam you up in litigation,” said Suzanne Taheri, outgoing deputy secretary of state for the Elections Division who dismissed Jones’ case on Jan. 7, 2019.

Before the court decision, each and every complaint received a hearing, and there was no mechanism for filtering out bogus cases meant to interfere with a candidacy. It was found that the structure violated First Amendment rights to political speech.

The day after Markward’s complaint was dismissed, Attorney General Phil Weiser and Secretary of State Jena Griswold, both Democrats, were sworn into office. Shortly after, the case was refiled by the elections division through the Attorney General’s office. The Secretary of State’s Office said the complaint against Jones was filed before the Holland decision, which means it still had precedence and could be refiled.

The Secretary of State’s Office said Taheri “invited the Elections Division to refile the case,” but Taheri said she never advocated for the refiling.

“I never encouraged them to refile,” she said in an interview.

Taheri said she dismissed the case originally because of the Holland decision and the limited ballot access and support unaffiliated candidates like Jones have in political campaigns. Unite began to act like a political party to unaffiliated candidates, which is not allowed, but recognized the limited access to resources non-party candidates have, she said.

“It was problematic for me the way they went after them for activities that major parties can engage in openly,” Taheri said.

In April 2019, Unite America and its affiliated groups paid a $9,000 settlement and formally registered as a political action committee. But the group did not admit fault or guilt, according to the settlement. The penalty was paid “solely to resolve the matter without delay and expense of contested litigation,” according to the document.

On Aug. 4, the case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning the complaint cannot be reopened.

Jones has stood by the fact he did not violate any laws.

“I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Jones said.

Legal costs were upward of $100,000 combined for all defending parties in the merged complaint, Jones said. He has also had trouble finding work because of the allegations, he said.

Independent voters and candidates continue to be suppressed, Jones says

In 2019, a Colorado bill was passed to increase signature requirements for unaffiliated candidates to gain access to the ballot. The ballot requirement was increased 150% – from 400 to 1,000 signatures – and 950% for governor or U.S. Senate, from 1,000 to 10,500.

The higher requirement is a direct attack on independent candidates and voters, Jones said. In 2020, no independent candidates were able to obtain enough signatures to get on the ballot for state and federal positions.

“They effectively got rid of any independent competition in elections,” Jones said.

Jack Turner, an independent candidate running for La Plata County commissioner, said the case against Jones was “cruel.”

“I know Paul. He’s such a good guy,” Turner said. “He hasn’t been training to be a state rep for his whole life. He was a guy that thought, ‘I can make a difference.’ He stepped up and this happened to him.”

Jones hopes the situation will help unite independent voters as a more powerful and cohesive bloc, he said.

“The only thing I can hope is that enough independent voters get frustrated with being taken for granted,” Jones said. “And they start actually thinking critically, asking their candidates difficult questions, asking where they stand on issues important to them and making sure that they’re represented.”

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