Colorado is joining a growing list of states that allow unaffiliated voters — the state's largest voting bloc — to participate in the major party primaries, thanks to a voter-passed initiative that coincided with disenchantment with the polarization of the 2016 election
The 2016 initiative allows Colorado's 1.2 million active independent voters to cast ballots Tuesday in either the Democratic or Republican party primaries on Tuesday. The initiative passed in a year that saw presidential candidate Bernie Sanders defeat Hillary Clinton in Colorado caucuses and yet a strong vote for Donald Trump in the general election, though he lost the state.
Early mail and drop-off ballot returns suggest that more independents are voting Democratic in a tight gubernatorial primary to succeed term-limited Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. It's too early to predict independents' turnout or impact on the campaigns, advocates said.
"What this means for the races will take time to see," said Josh Penry, a political consultant and former Republican state Senate minority leader who campaigned for the initiative. "As the parties self-immolate and people flee them, it's important that they can vote in the semi-finals."
"The reality is the GOP and the Democrats should be thinking about how to appeal to the people in this enormous bloc," Penry said.
But there's little sign that the major party gubernatorial candidates are reaching out in this swing state where Democrats and Republicans each have roughly 1 million registered voters.
Presumed Democratic front-runners U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy espouse universal health care, their public schools credentials, protecting public lands and promoting renewable energy. Republicans, including Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a cousin of President George W. Bush, generally embrace President Donald Trump's immigration crackdown and income tax cuts and promote Colorado's oil and gas industry.
It's that polar opposite, take-it-or-leave-it campaign buffet that prompted Alex Leith, a Denver civil engineer, to abandon the Democratic Party and become an unaffiliated voter two years ago.
He saw the Sanders and Trump rebellions as signs that traditional party politics weren't working for people like himself, a self-described fiscal conservative and social liberal.
"I was seeing a lot of hypocrisy coming from Republicans and Democrats," Leith said. "I wanted to see a return to a common sense ability to actually govern and work across party lines."
The 27-year-old cast his gubernatorial primary ballot this year for Republican businessman and former state Rep. Victor Mitchell. "He's willing to not totally align himself with Republican dogma," Leith said, citing Mitchell's support for a "red flag" law that would allow the seizure of firearms from those who pose a danger to themselves or others.
"I'm also encouraged by the fact that he's willing to admit when he isn't knowledgeable about certain topics — but is willing to study them," Leith said.
Supporters of the semi-open primary argue that independent voters like Leith pay for the party primaries and should have a say in them.
Whether that generates higher turnout or moderate candidate positions could take several election cycles to determine. Arizona, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island and West Virginia also allow independents to vote in primaries.
As of early Thursday, nearly 540,000 Coloradans had voted — including nearly 123,000 independents. Democrats and Republicans had returned about 208,000 ballots for each party.
In 2016, 21 percent of active voters participated in the primary.
"Our data and our experience points to how philosophically diverse Colorado is. There is no such thing as a generic independent," said Kent Thiry, the CEO of Denver-based dialysis firm DaVita Inc., who spearheaded the 2016 initiative.
"I've been an independent most of my adult life," Thiry said. "To not have a voice until the final election in a country where the primary has become the final election ... that is very frustrating to me."
Thiry's group released a poll this week suggesting that education, health care, jobs and the economy are the top issues for Colorado's unaffiliated voters.
Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, is skeptical that the new system will produce an immediate impact.
"A lot of states allow some version of this, and honestly the research suggests it doesn't make that much of a difference whether (the primary) is open or closed," Masket said. "The nominees end up looking like the one the parties would choose themselves."
Also running to succeed Hickenlooper are former Democratic state Sen. Mike Johnston and Democratic Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne. Republican businessman Greg Lopez and investment banker Doug Robinson, a nephew of Utah senate candidate Mitt Romney, want their party's nomination.
Colorado hasn't elected a Republican governor since 1998.
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