'What a Democracy Should Be'
Election law attorney Martha Tierney on the gold standard in Colorado and trouble elsewhere
Published in 2022 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine on March 4, 2022
When Martha Tierney entered the world of election law in the 1990s, campaign finance reform was “the playground where the fights were,” she remembers. Increasingly in the 2000s, the fights centered on voter requirements, including voter ID and maintaining active registrations.
Today, it’s all about election policies—how, when and where citizens can cast ballots, and which entity has the final say on an election’s legitimacy.
“There are a lot of efforts to make it harder to vote or make it so only certain people have an easier time voting, and more recently efforts to take authority away from local election officials and put it into politicians’ hands if they don’t like the results,” says the partner at Denver’s Tierney Lawrence. “People need to get mobilized and be outraged over these policies that are leading to the erosion of our elections. If you don’t have safe, clean, fair elections, you really don’t have democracy.”
Tierney grew up in northern Minnesota, where her family discussed politics around the dinner table. After graduating from Vermont Law School in 1996, she started out as a family law attorney at Denver’s Kelly Haglund Garnsey & Kahn. “Family law teaches you to be a trial lawyer because you’re in court a lot,” she says.
She also got involved on a volunteer basis with government accountability nonprofit Colorado Common Cause, joining its board in 1998. That’s what sparked her interest in election law. One of her first major cases was a lawsuit challenging a 2002 state law that required voters to present ID at the polls. She argued that doing so was unconstitutional, interfering with the fundamental right to vote.
She lost. The trial court noted that the state had a legitimate interest in taking steps to prevent voter fraud—“even though there was no demonstrated fraud or evidence of fraud presented in the case,” she says.
But the outcome didn’t discourage her. “It fired me up,” says Tierney, who now serves as chair of Common Cause’s National Governing Board.
With the support of her law firm, she further developed an election law practice. In 2003, she began working with the Colorado Democratic Party, becoming the organization’s general counsel a year later. In 2016, she opened her own firm.
Tierney’s practice now focuses on helping nonprofit organizations and candidates navigate election laws, and guiding ballot-measure proponents through the initiative process. “I was really inspired by the good you can do practicing election law, so I forged my own path,” she says.
One of her proudest achievements to date: helping to draft and pass legislation that drastically overhauled Colorado elections by mandating mail-in ballots be sent to all registered voters; allowing voters to cast in-person ballots at any polling location either early or on election day; and establishing same-day voter registration. Then-Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill into law in 2013.
“Colorado is now the gold standard for election laws and other states are adopting our model,” Tierney says.
A large part of her current practice is making sure that doesn’t change. “As power shifts, we see efforts to change the playing field,” she says. “In the last session, [we saw] probably 10 different bills to try to take away from every aspect of our gold standard.”
Despite the conventional wisdom that mail-in ballots and same-day registration benefit Democrats more than Republicans, Tierney says evidence from state elections has proven otherwise. “It doesn’t favor one party over another,” she says. “Everybody votes more.”
That’s why recent election law changes in Georgia and Texas that restrict voters have her concerned. “From a policy perspective, that means people in state A have a better chance of voting than people in state B, and that shouldn’t be the case in one nation,” Tierney says. “It’s a problem if your ability to cast a ballot is, in many ways, entirely driven by the geographical location where you sit. It shouldn’t be that way. … If you empower everybody to have a voice, you get more voices making a decision, and that’s what a democracy should be.”
Voting By the Numbers in Colorado
- Voter turnout among active registered voters in 2020: 86.8%
- State rank in voter turnout in 2020: 2nd
- Total registered voters as of December 2021: 4,238,622
Source: Colorado Secretary of State