Coloradans showed up on Super Tuesday in unprecedented numbers, and our feeble caucus system couldn’t handle the masses.

Last week, caucus-goers voiced their presidential preferences in the yard of Lincoln Middle School in Fort Collins, as volunteers used their phones’ flashlights to read voting rules aloud to gathering crowds. So many Democrat voters showed up to this location that the Poudre Fire Authority was forced to make hordes of voters meet outside.

A similar scene unfolded at the Plaza Senior Center in Edgewater, where volunteers from the Democratic Party of Jefferson County carried tables into the parking lot, and crowds caucused there on the asphalt. In North Boulder, hundreds of would-be voters were turned away at Centennial Middle School for lack of space—they never got a chance to cast their votes.

“I think we all agree that [the overcrowding] on Tuesday at many sites was not ideal,” says James Thompson, chair of the Larimer County Democratic Party, who was at Lincoln Middle School during the caucus last week.

In Colorado, county parties are mandated to carry out volunteer-run, party-funded primary caucuses in which delegates are elected to vote for their candidates—from county commissioner to commander in chief. On non-presidential years, Thompson says, the caucuses are manageable. But every fourth year, the task becomes overwhelming.

Unlike a primary election, caucuses feel more personal, which is why some voters and officials prefer them. Caucuses happen in the span of a few hours, bringing together neighbors and enabling passionate discussion among attendees.

Critics claim that while the system might still work in small, rural communities, it’s just not feasible for densely populated areas, like Colorado’s Front Range. Precinct sites—generally schools—are often inundated with voters, as was evident last week. Parking is an issue, and voters must wait in long lines, sometimes for hours. In the end, some are daunted and leave, while others are unable to gain entry due to occupancy limits. And that is just those who can make it. Many would-be voters are unable to attend during the small window that is caucus time—whether due to family requirements, work schedules, or any number of reasons. Unaffiliated voters, on the other hand, are left completely on the sidelines.

After record-breaking crowds at Democratic caucuses in Colorado on Super Tuesday—more than 121,000 voters participated—and poor turnout at Republican caucuses (the party did away with the presidential preference poll last year, which likely kept voters away), some Democratic and Republican officials are saying it’s time to bring back the primary.

Read on for more about how Colorado’s system currently works, why it changed, and what would need to happen for it to change again.

How Does It All Work?

Colorado has hosted caucuses for more than century, but there was a time when the state had both primary elections and caucuses (1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections). In those years, Democrats and Republicans voted in a primary election (via mail-in ballots or at polling places) to express their preference for their party’s presidential candidate. From there, delegates attended the national convention to represent their counties’ votes. In the scenario that a county supported a candidate who was no longer in the race, delegates had the opportunity to vote how they pleased in the second round.

In our current caucus-only system, preferential polling—also called straw polling—is conducted at precinct caucuses (at least for the Democrats; read more about the Republican process here). Delegates, who represent their voters’ interests at county, congressional district, and state conventions, are selected to vote for a certain candidate, but these results are non-binding. If, for example, the candidate a delegate has pledged to vote for drops out before the national convention, that delegate can then choose another candidate.

In either system, who your delegate is may not matter, or it may matter a great deal. You won’t know until long after your ballot is cast (or your hand is raised in a straw poll).

What Happened to the Primary?

Colorado’s primary election was done away with by the state legislature in a serious budget-crunching effort after the 2000 elections.

“In order to save money, the legislature eliminated it in the approach to the 2004 election cycle, and it’s just never been re-instituted since then,” says former Colorado Republican Party chair Dick Wadhams.

Back then, Wadhams recalls, our state’s budget was smaller, voter turnout was lower, and legislators didn’t think it was worth more than a million dollars to fund a primary election that relatively few were showing up for. So, the process returned to having county parties conduct their own primary elections, with their own funding, and run them entirely with their own volunteers. That’s how it works today.

Not surprisingly, you’d be hard pressed to find a county party official who’s a fan of this system, even if they’re not quite sold on returning to a primary election.

“Frankly, county parties don’t really have the capacity [for caucuses in presidential years], whether it’s the money—we spend thousands of dollars paying for this—or the volunteers,” says Thompson.

Lara Lee Hullinghorst, chair of the Boulder County Democratic Party, says the biggest problem for her is a lack of space—there simply are not enough rentable spaces in Boulder County in the limited window she has to caucus in, no matter how much money or how many volunteers she has.

“If one person can’t vote, we fail,” says Hullinghorst. “Right now the caucus system sets us up to fail.”

A New Tune for 2020?

Besides the impressive turnout on the Democratic side, it doesn’t seem like anyone is happy about the logistics of this year’s caucus. So what now?

“Colorado should have a primary. 100 percent,” says Hullinghorst. She says she called her representative (incidentally, her mother) the morning after Super Tuesday to agitate for new legislation to bring the primary back.

Republicans are singing the same tune. Colorado Republican Committee communications director Kyle Kohli says the parties are just not equipped to deal with the logistics associated with important elections. And for the GOP, some caucus-goers were disappointed when they arrived at their precincts on Super Tuesday, only to discover that their votes wouldn’t be counted.

The Colorado Republican Committee, Kohli says, is ready to work with Democrats for a better system for both parties.

“We’re on board with party leadership here, [to pursue a] bipartisan consensus to try find a solution to get us to a primary, hopefully by 2020,” Kohli says.

For that to happen, the Colorado General Assembly will have to pass a bill, and that means that a bipartisan committee would have to hammer out the specifics of what a Colorado primary would look like, and most importantly, figure out how it would be funded (it’s estimated to cost $3–4 million, with the responsibility falling to the state).

A proposal to reinstate the primary was voted down in the Legislature last year, but representatives on both sides of the aisle agree that this year’s caucus madness could be enough to revive the issue, and ensure that voters will have their voices heard in upcoming elections.

—Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Haley Gray
Haley Gray
Haley Gray is a Boulder-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in 5280, Roads and Kingdoms, Boulder Magazine, and the Albuquerque Journal.