Caucuses were chaos. Should Colorado have a primary instead?
Now that Colorado’s Super Tuesday caucuses are over, attention is shifting away from the candidates and onto something else: the process.
Enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders fueled record-breaking turnout from Democrats on March 1, and threw caucus locations into chaos around the state. In Boulder, hundreds were turned away as frustrated voters likened the situation to a Japanese subway car or a Nicaraguan election without the machine guns.
“We just weren’t ready for that kind of an onslaught,” says Julie Mordecai, chairwoman of the Alamosa County Democrats, whose caucus locations were packed.
On the Republican side, some voters who showed up to caucus for a presidential candidate were confused when told they wouldn’t be able to do so. The Republicans had cancelled their presidential straw poll this year, but the news clearly hadn’t made it to every rank-and-file Republican who showed up.
“We had some people who were sad to find out there wasn’t a binding straw poll,” says Joy Hoffman, who chairs the Arapahoe County GOP.
In the two weeks leading up to the caucuses and in the days following it, Hoffman says phone calls she fielded at her local Party office have been dominated by one thing: Why not have a regular presidential primary in Colorado?
“People were delighted and excited to help and talk about the local candidates, but they’re also saying we wish to have a voice on the national level,” Hoffman says.
Because of what happened to both sides on Super Tuesday, leaders of the state Democratic and Republican parties have tentatively agreed on an effort that would change the way early nomination contests are handled in Colorado, according to The Associated Press. (Meanwhile, The Denver Post published a post-caucus editorial urging the state to return to a presidential primary.)
Colorado’s Republican secretary of state, Wayne Williams, is also on board with having a primary despite the price tag.
— Wayne Williams (@ColoSecofState) March 4, 2016
What that switch might look like, though, isn’t entirely clear yet.
“We’ve got to do something different to involve more people because it’s our country we’re talking about here,” Republican Party Chairman Steve House told the AP.
Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio was similarly vague.
“People have caucuses on their minds,” he said. “What better time than now to work on perfecting the system?”
The two had been a little more specific in the days just before the March 1 caucuses, however. With more than one million unaffiliated voters in Colorado choosing not to declare themselves a member of a political party, The Colorado Independent talked to both party leaders about their feelings on allowing those voters to somehow participate in a potential primary.
A group called Let Colorado Vote is trying to get two measures on the 2016 statewide ballot that would create a presidential primary and allow unaffiliated voters to participate in it. If passed, registered Democrats would be mailed ballots featuring the Democratic candidates, and Republicans would be mailed ballots featuring GOP candidates. Unaffiliated voters would get both, but would only be allowed to mail in one for their vote to count.
Palacio, who opposes the ballot measures, does support the idea of having a presidential primary. If that happens, he told The Independent, his party would be be open to allowing temporary registration. So, if a primary election is coming up, an unaffiliated voter could temporarily register as a Democrat in order to vote in that party’s primary, and could later change back to an unaffiliated voter.
“We think because a primary really is a function of a political party … we think that only registered Republicans or registered Democrats or people who temporarily affiliate with us should be able to participate,” Palacio said.
He also worried about a larger flood of money in politics as campaigns in primary season would have to raise and spend greater funds in order to reach a million more voters, tipping the scales in favor of candidates who can raise the most cash.
The Republican Party of Colorado said it would be open to a system allowing unaffiliated voters to participate, but only if voters would automatically become registered Republicans once their ballots are cast in a GOP early nominating contest.
Curtis Hubbard, a spokesman for Let Colorado Vote, wants the state’s unaffiliated voters to be allowed to participate — and stay unaffiliated if they wish.
“They don’t view themselves as Republicans or Democrats,” he said of the state’s largest voting bloc, and he doesn’t think voting should be any more difficult for an unaffiliated voter than a registered party member.
Colorado held primaries in 1992 and 1996, and held its last one in 2000, when the cost of running it swayed lawmakers to switch back to a party-financed caucus system.
Last year, an effort in the state legislature to bring back primaries failed. When the government runs primaries, it costs money, obviously, and the cost of last year’s proposal was pegged around $3 million to $4 million. Having the parties control the caucuses saves taxpayer money.
Part of Let Colorado Vote’s message is that when taxpayer money is used to run elections like primaries then all voters should be able to participate.
“When the parties run something, you saw the result on Tuesday night,” Hubbard says. “Tuesday night demonstrated that Colorado is ready for a presidential primary, and we think that a primary is one that should be open to Republicans, Democrats, and the more than one million unaffiliated voters in Colorado. And that’s how a majority of states do it.”
Bob Nemanich, a Democratic Party activist in Colorado Springs who organized a precinct caucus Tuesday, says the caucus system disenfranchises voters by design because of the limits it puts on time, space, and other inherent factors. “We’re in an era in society of convenience and me,” he says. “And we’re used to that even with mail-in ballots for the election.”
But he defends the current system which he says engages voters. Caucuses foster participation among those who show up at a much greater level than in primaries where voters simply check a box and drop it in the mail. With a mail-in ballot or a primary election, he says, you vote, and then you go home and watch the news to see if you’re on the winning side. At caucuses you see your neighbors, you talk it out, and you engage and participate at a higher level.
Colorado Common Cause was one group that supported the failed legislation last year, and the good government group is again keeping an eye on whatever emerges this time around.
Elena Nunez, director of the group, says the current system is kind of an irony. Colorado has done a lot in recent years to make voting easier. Big statewide elections can now be conducted entirely through the mail, meaning more people can participate including those with mobility or child care issues that might keep them from being able to wait in line somewhere.
Having the party caucuses on a single evening, starting at 7 p.m., not only cuts unaffiliated voters out of the process, but also voters who work second shift.
“I think there are a lot of people who are either disenfranchised because they can’t participate or it’s really difficult,” Nunez says. “Either way it’s antithetical to how we set up elections in Colorado, and there’s no reason at this point.”
Photo credit: Susan Greene
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