Seven months ago, those who wanted to have their voices heard in selecting a Democratic nominee for president had to meet two key requirements—be registered Democrats, and be willing to vote in the (crowded) group setting of a caucus. The state’s Republicans, on the other hand, were out of luck entirely. Their candidate preference was decided by the Colorado GOP, which opted out of a traditional caucus and claimed it helped them make a better decision later in the process.
Fast forward to 2020, and all of this will be different. With the passing of Propositions 107 and 108 on Election Day, Colorado will now hold presidential primary elections in 2020 for both Democrats and Republicans—and unaffiliated voters can choose to cast a vote in one party’s primary. Colorado’s voting process for county, state, and federal offices other than the presidency will also transition to a primary system.
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The approval of the two ballot measures means that Colorado’s high population of unaffiliated voters—who represent a whopping one-third of all registered voters in the state—will have a greater role in Colorado’s nominee selections. Financially, the new statutes will increase state spending by over $2.7 million between 2018 and 2020, with subsequent increases every four years to fund primary elections after 2020. Counties will incur costs of about $5.3 million in 2019, with increases in spending every four years following as well. The state will pay $2.6 million to help the counties bear some of the financial burden.
While the results for both propositions weren’t exactly close, Coloradans still have different outlooks on what the passage of these ballot measures will mean for the state’s political system. We talked to the leaders of action groups behind the propositions to get a sense of how these new statutes will affect the way democracy functions in Colorado.
Worst-Case Scenario (From the Anti-Primary Side):
Average citizens will miss out on the chance to grow the kind of slow-and-steady, neighborhood grassroots support they need in order to run for office. “You go to the county, you go to the state, [the caucus] is a really terrific networking opportunity, and you gain the connections you need to then go on and serve in the office,” says John Wren, founder of Denver’s Small Business Chamber of Commerce and leader of opposition group Save the Caucus. “It is a long-distance race and it doesn’t happen overnight, but I think that’s the kind of political leadership we want.”
The campaigns that have the money to advertise will control the dialogue surrounding elections, and voters will be less likely to make informed decisions. Without the large-scale opportunities for political and ideological exchange that caucuses provide, Wren argues, voters will miss out on a chance to bounce their political ideas off fellow party members. “There’s no discussion, it’s just advertising and cast your vote… It’s a totally different experience than the kind of approach that we’ve had in this country for so long. It becomes much more like the totalitarian regime.” In general, Wren says, primaries now open the door for party elites to have too much of a role in decision making.
Allowing unaffiliated voters into partisan primaries will muck up the system. Wren references Nancy L. Rosenblum’s book On the Side of Angels, which he says taught him that “the partisan process is really necessary to have legislation in an environment where the will of the people is respected and it’s not just the party elite.”
The unclear language in the propositions will stop them from being properly enacted anyway. “There’s no possible way they can get implemented the way they’re written now… There’s just too many question marks.” One point of confusion, Wren says, lies in the “mechanics” of the primaries and ballot processing.
Best-Case Scenario (From the Pro-Primary Side):
More Colorado citizens will choose to play a part in the state’s political process. Colorado Democratic Party officials said only 122,000 voters attended March’s caucuses, out of a grand total of more than 1.1 million Democrats registered at the time. With primaries instead of caucuses, that number will likely grow—especially now that unaffiliated voters can participate. “No matter what theoretical debate you might want to have about a caucus versus a primary, the facts are that caucuses are attended by a tiny percentage that is typically dominated by the far left or far right,” says Kent Thiry, CEO of Denver health care company DaVita and chairman of support group Let Colorado Vote. “That is why, in the real world, a primary—which allows many, many more Coloradans to participate—leads to a more representative outcome.”
Including unaffiliated voters in the primaries will let Colorado voters avoid being put in a box, which will encourage political engagement. Not only are a third of Colorado voters unaffiliated, but Thiry says they’re just as excited to vote as registered Democrats or Republicans. “How could you possibly defend a system that, in the real world, excludes such a massive and growing percentage of your electorate?” he says. “At what point does it fly in the face of the very notion of democracy?”
The cost of the primaries will be miniscule to taxpayers—and the product will be worth it. Thiry, who personally donated nearly $1.4 million to Let Colorado Vote, estimates that the implementation of a primary system will cost each voter just 60 cents per year. “We think that that is an absolute bargain if you’re getting a better democracy,” he says.
The Colorado legislature can, should, and will make changes to allow the law to function effectively. “We purposely made our proposition just a statutory one, not Constitutional, so that to the extent we didn’t get it exactly right, the legislature can tweak and improve,” Thiry says.
What Is Certain
In this year’s general election, more than 822,000 unaffiliated voters—compared to about 855,000 Democrats and 891,000 Republicans—cast a ballot. That portion of the electorate, which is only growing, now has more than just a say in the process. Due to the relative balance of Republicans and Democrats in the state, the increasing number of independents will wield a great deal of power to tip the scales and decide who will show up on future ballots in Colorado.
Editor’s Note, 11/16/16: The original version of this article had the incorrect increase in state spending for these measures. The article has been updated with the correct numbers.