As statewide returns rolled in on November 8, 2016, something happened that has the potential to change Colorado’s political landscape—dramatically. It wasn’t the result of the presidential election or any particular statewide seat. No, it was the passage of Proposition 108, which expands the Centennial State’s primary elections to include unaffiliated voters. Previously, Colorado’s closed primary system had allowed only party members to vote in primary elections. That wasn’t a big deal when most of the state’s voters were registered with a political party. But unaffiliated voters—individuals who choose not to register with one of the state’s major or minor parties—have grown steadily and now account for more than one-third of the state’s eligible voters. That shift means candidates should court unaffiliated voters in order to win primaries. In short, wooing your own party isn’t enough.
Contentious closed primaries can pull candidates to ideological poles in an effort to appease the party faithful. That can cause challenges in a general election, when candidates may struggle to win over unaffiliated voters with the same messages. “The concern of a really tough primary, on both sides, is your primary electorate,” says Paul Teske, dean of the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs. “If you really engage in a tough primary, you are close to the further extremes of your party.” Proposition 108, some thought, might fix that. Governor John Hickenlooper and several former governors endorsed the plan. The people agreed: Proposition 108 passed with 52.8 percent of the vote.
Now it’s time to see if unaffiliated voters will cast ballots in the primaries, which typically have low turnout. (In Colorado’s last open gubernatorial race, in 2010, about 37 percent of active Democratic voters and 45 percent of active Republican voters participated in the primaries.) Unaffiliateds might not cast ballots in June for a variety of reasons, including the fact that if they vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary, which contest they voted in will become part of the public record.
“Sometimes, new voting initiatives take several election cycles to take effect,” says Seth Masket, a professor at the University of Denver’s Department of Political Science. He says Proposition 108 could gain momentum as voters become familiar with the process but is skeptical it will have much of an effect. When asked if “party raiding” (if, say, Republican-leaning unaffiliateds voted for a Democratic candidate they think would lose in the general election—or vice versa) is a concern, Masket said it was possible, but unlikely. “It is pretty rare and requires an unusual level of organization to pull that off,” he says. “Right now, there are pretty competitive races in both parties. There is quite a bit to keep partisans busy.”
A Slice of the Pie
The number of unaffiliated voters in Colorado has quickly surpassed the counts of registered Democrats and Republicans. Recently, Democrats took over second place, although both major parties have since lost voter shares.
Party Affiliation of Active Voters
Active Voter Registrations from 2012 to 2018
We sat down with Secretary of State Wayne Williams—who oversees the state’s election processes—to figure out how, exactly, Colorado’s brand new primary system will work.
So what does Proposition 108 actually change?
If you are a Republican, a Democrat, or a member of a minor party, nothing changes. Where it changes is if you are an unaffiliated voter. Unaffiliated voters will get both a Democratic and Republican ballot, and they are going to be told to only return one of them.
Is that unusual?
We’ve never done that before. We’ve never sent you a ballot and said, “Don’t return it.”
Has anyone else tried this?
There are a couple of states, including Washington, that have tried something similar.
How did it go?
They had a number of ballots that were void because people returned multiple ballots. My goal as secretary of state is that everybody knows what their options are and that they not spoil their ballot inadvertently through turning in two.
What should people do with the extra ballot? Make paper airplanes or origami donkeys and elephants?
Recycle it. Shred it. Use it as mulch. Whatever works best for you. Just don’t vote it, and don’t return it.
Will whom I vote for be secret?
Yes. Whom you vote for is always secret, but whether you vote in a particular election is a matter of public record. The legislation—SB17-305—adopted last year made it clear that is the case going forward as well. You are not required to affiliate, but the choice you made as to which election to vote in is a public record.
So unaffiliated voters can’t have their cake and eat it too?
When you look at all the concerns in the United States recently about, Can we trust the elections process? I think Colorado’s way of ensuring that integrity is the way to go.
The Great Divide
Are unaffiliated voters really unaffiliated?
Many unaffiliated voters don’t like to be defined, which is part of the reason they confound campaigns and keep politics interesting in Colorado. Their political beliefs stretch across the continuum. They don’t want, or need, to have their politics served in a binary mode.
But that doesn’t stop people from trying to figure these voters out. “Polling would tell us that if you really pry into those preferences, most are closet Democrats or Republicans,” says Kyle Saunders, an associate professor in political science at Colorado State University, but he cautions against oversimplification.
We do know that registering as “unaffiliated” is popular with young voters (ages 18 to 35). “About half of young people are registering as unaffiliated,” says Lizzy Stephan, the executive director of nonpartisan New Era Colorado, which leads one of the state’s largest voter registration projects. “They put issues first, rather than candidates.”
Magellan Strategies, a Republican polling and political strategy firm, surveyed potential unaffiliated general election voters in the state this past December to see if they might vote in the 2018 primary—and how. “Among people who did intend to participate—about 40 percent—27 percent planned to vote in the Democratic primary and 12 percent in the Republican primary, because, they said, ‘I want my voice heard, and I want two good choices,’ ” says founder and CEO David Flaherty. The poll also found that 62 percent of respondents had unfavorable views of the Republican Party while 39 percent had unfavorable views of Democrats—which may indicate difficult odds for the GOP in Colorado come November.