After a Challenging Caucus, Colorado Voters Set to Decide on Primaries
This election cycle has been anything but typical, and now Colorado voters will have their say in how the next election is handled. Two questions will appear on the November ballot, one would open local primaries to unaffiliated voters. The other would switch the state to a presidential primary instead of a caucus.
A wave of excitement around the presidential race back in March didn't translate to a smoothly run caucus in Colorado. In fact, members of both parties had major concerns.
"We saw a lot of dissatisfaction, not just in metro Denver area, but around the state," said Democratic state party chairman Rick Palacio.
"People had to travel long distances, wait in long lines. It would be better for Colorado to move towards a presidential primary so that every registered voter received a ballot in the mail, not just show up on one random Tuesday."
Palacio says the caucus system ended up disenfranchising many groups, including the elderly and people with children. It can also be confusing and inconvenient. That's why he and his Republican counterpart wanted state lawmakers to pass a bill to add a presidential primary. That didn't happen. And neither backs Initiative 140, which would add the primary and go one step further – by opening it up to unaffiliated voters.
"Because what's the point of having a private membership organization that allows non-members to vote," said Republican State Party chairman Steve House. "You've basically said, 'I've got a board but anybody who happens to show up off the street that day, they can vote.' I don't like that. I think it's the wrong idea."
But some high level officials, such as Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper, back the idea of having open primaries.
"That's going to certainly encourage many, many more people to get involved in the electoral process," said Hickenlooper. "More and more people become unaffiliated voters through one frustration or another with the traditional party politics. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't look for ways for them to be involved in who actually ends up on the ballot."
Kent Thiry agrees. He's the CEO of the Denver-based kidney care company DaVita. He's also leading the "Let Colorado Vote" campaign.
"We now have a world where there are more independents in Colorado than there are Democrats or Republicans," said Thiry. "And the notion that a small faction of each party picks the finalist, and the rest of the people in the party and all the independents only get to choose between those two extreme candidates, that's just not healthy democracy."
The latest campaign finance reports show that supporters have raised roughly one and a half million dollars, while opponents have raised hardly anything.
Colorado State University Political science professor John Straayer is also an unaffiliated voter. In the past, he has felt forced to register as a Republican, because he lives in a right leaning district, where the primary vote is the one that counts.
"In the majority of the districts, whether they're state legislative districts or congressional districts, the real decision is not made in November. The decision is made on primary day. If you live in those districts, which is most people in this country and in this state, the best way to have an impact is to vote in the primary election."
A separate initiative, number 98, is also focused on unaffiliated voters. It would open up the current local, statehouse, and U.S senate primaries, again, without a person having to pick a party.
"I think all the details have to be worked out and elections are actually a fairly complicated process," said Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams. He supports a presidential primary, but not open primaries. That's because if passed, unaffiliated voters would receive a combined ballot in the mail that would include both the Republican and Democratic ticket. He says it would be confusing and logistically challenging.
"Much of the existing election equipment is old and doesn't have the capability of tabulating ballots that have both parties, and you can only vote in one and if you vote in both then it's disqualified," said Williams. "And so it's a much more complicated programming issue that many of the counties from what we've talked to them, don't have the capability to actually run, so that would then drive up costs."
It is worth noting that neither proposal would do away with the caucus system entirely, which Democratic Party Chair Palacio said is a good thing.
"We want to make sure the caucuses remain intact for the purposes of party building for community building around party issues."
Still some party loyalists don't want the caucus to be diminished at all, especially during a presidential election year. Adding a presidential primary is estimated to cost counties and the state five million dollars each election cycle.
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