State’s open primaries leave open questions | PostIndependent.com

State’s open primaries leave open questions

Jack Queen
jqueen@summitdaily.com
John Stroud
jstroud@postindependent.com

Colorado will elect a new governor in November, and at least a dozen candidates are currently in the running on both the Republican and Democratic sides.

This year, unaffiliated voters have reason to take early notice in the race to replace term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper — and not just because of the dizzying number of candidates.

Thanks to an open primaries ballot measure passed in 2016, voters who aren't registered with either major party will be able to help choose nominees for the first time in June.

Proponents of the measure argued that opening up primaries to unaffiliated voters could give a boost to more moderate candidates and wrest some control from the hardcore partisans who cast a disproportionate number of primary votes.

In practice, though, the change adds a big unknown to an already wild race, with implications all the way down the ballot and even for the coffers of county governments.

Unaffiliated voters are the largest and fastest-growing bloc in Colorado, making up 37 percent of the electorate. Those voters will get ballots from both parties, each listing candidates for governor, attorney general and all the way down to small local races.

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According to Garfield County Clerk and Recorder Jean Alberico, out of the roughly 32,000 active registered voters in Garfield County, about 12,900 are unaffiliated. Approximately 9,800 are registered Republicans and 7,000 are Democrats.

Prior to the open primaries, the cost to send out, receive and count ballots in the primary election would be around $40,000, Alberico said. To include unaffiliated voters will cost about the same as last November's coordinated election, which was about $65,000, she said.

Unaffiliated voters can declare a preference prior to ballots going out, and only receive one ballot, and Alberico said she will encourage Garfield County voters to do that.

It they receive the two ballots, though, they can only complete and return one ballot. So, tracking that while still protecting a voter's privacy will require extra judges and add some costs, as well, she said.

"It's not something we've ever had to do before, so there is a bit of an unknown," she said, adding that the state legislature is looking at refining some of those procedures during the current legislative session.

If an unaffiliated voter turns in both a Republican and Democratic primary ballots, both will be nullified, Alberico said.

"I think a lot of people are watching how things shake out for the governor's race in particular, but there could be some other statewide races that unaffiliated voters will be interested in participating," she said.

In Summit County, the cost of including roughly 9,000 unaffiliated voters in primaries this year is expected to come in at about $20,000, according to the Summit County Clerk and Recorder's Office.

"What we're all wondering is to what extent will unaffiliated voters take advantage of this change and participate, and that's really and truly a wild card," said Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson, a Democrat.

"Even when I talk to experts who do this for a living they say, 'we don't really know what's going to happen,'" he said.

Comparisons are hard to find. While many states have open primaries, none use mail-in ballots as extensively as Colorado, where voting for party nominees could add only a couple of minutes to a P.O. box trip. The question is whether the unprecedented convenience will matter.

"In other states that have opened up primaries, they have historically seen low participation rates from unaffiliated voters — but those states don't mail out ballots," Davidson said.

The governor's race in particular is likely to bring unaffiliated voters into the process, said Dave Merritt, longtime Garfield County Republican Party Central Committee member and former party chairman.

"I think it does mean that the candidates will have to appeal to more than just the base of the party itself," Merritt said. "You've got to be able to appeal beyond that if you're going to get those votes."

A process that allows some candidates to bypass the party caucuses and county/state assembly process and petition directly onto the primary ballot could make for some long primary ballots, he noted.

Merritt said the county GOP is encouraging candidates for county offices to declare their intentions before the caucuses, and avoid the time and cost of collecting upwards of 3,000 signatures to be on the primary ballot.

High-profile races at the top of the ticket could decide which primary unaffiliated voters choose to vote in, and thus, which down-ballot candidates they would also be able to choose.

What that could mean for local candidates is unclear. In theory, though, a big controversy on either the Democratic or Republican side of a race could grab unaffiliated voters' attention and prompt them to cast a disproportionate number of ballots for either party's primary.

"If somebody just cared about the governor's race and only voted for that and didn't vote anything else, it could have an affect on the outcome if there were a lot of people that did that too and didn't vote for local candidates," Neel said.

In Summit County, where local election margins are small and primaries can be won by a handful of votes, that could change the strategic calculus for some.

"It certainly makes it harder for people further down the ballot to know how to engage with local unaffiliated voters, or even if they should try," said Davidson, who is not up for re-election this year. "I would guess that most voters are thinking about Democrats versus Republicans at the top of the ticket versus locally, but maybe not."

What’s changing with open primaries?

Colorado will have open primaries for the first time this year, thanks to a 2016 ballot initiative allowing unaffiliated voters to help pick party nominees.

What does this mean for unaffiliated voters?

They will receive one primary ballot from each major party in the mail but can only vote in one party’s primary; if both ballots are turned in, neither will count.

When will ballots be sent out?

Voters will start receiving their ballots in the mail in early June. Primary day is June 26.

What does this mean for Garfield County?

It will cost taxpayers some extra money, roughly $25,000 more than the cost to run a strictly partisan primary, according to the Clerk and Recorder’s Office.

Open primaries might give an advantage to more moderate candidates, but it’s difficult to estimate how many independent voters will participate in primaries. In other states, they turn out in low numbers, but Colorado’s mail-in ballots make it far easier to vote.

The primary determines who’s on the final ballot, but how are candidates chosen for the primary ballot?

The short answer is a slugfest of party caucuses in community centers, libraries and school cafeterias across the state, or a petition process for more deep-pocketed candidates.

During caucuses, voters pick their local delegates to send to state nominating assemblies, which are similar to party conventions for presidential candidates but have far less predictable outcomes.

Unaffiliated voters can’t participate in caucuses but are typically allowed to observe. Garfield County Republicans and Democrats will hold their respective caucuses on March 6.