Unaffiliated? You can vote in Colorado’s 2018 party primaries. But should the party you choose be public information?
A quiet debate is playing out behind the scenes as state government implements a new law
Next year, unaffiliated voters —the state’s largest voting bloc—for the first time will be able to help choose the Democratic or Republican nominee in a Colorado governor’s race while still remaining unaffiliated.
That’s because voters last year passed a ballot measure allowing those who choose not to join a political party to participate in the party primaries. Unaffiliated voters, however, can only pick one primary to vote in— they can’t vote in both.
And here’s something those non-party people should know: The primary they choose could become public information.
Colorado’s Republican secretary of state, Wayne Williams, is pushing for such disclosure as he develops rules to implement the new law before the 2018 statewide gubernatorial primaries. He says such transparency is about voter integrity.
“No one has a right or ability to know how you voted, but they have a right to know in what election you voted,” Williams told The Colorado Independent. “We’re not like a dictatorship where we say, ‘Trust us comrade, a lot of people voted and they didn’t vote for you, but I’m not going to tell you who those people are who voted.’”
Morgan Carroll, who leads the state Democratic Party, and Jeff Hays, who leads the state Republican party, both say they also want the ability to access the names of unaffiliated voters who voted in their primaries.
Not everyone, though, wants that information made public.
“I think people are unaffiliated because they don’t want that tag, don’t want that label,” says Amber McReynolds, an unaffiliated voter who is Denver’s director of elections.
She is pushing back against the move, saying that it might set up a legal challenge down the road to determine whether Williams has the authority to make such a rule himself. She notes that the statewide pitch to voters who passed the new law at the ballot box, called Prop. 108, didn’t talk much about whether unaffiliated voters will have to publicly declare what party primary they choose.
“I think a lot of voters who aren’t close to this process don’t realize that implication,” McReynolds says.
In Colorado, unaffiliated voters make up nearly 1.2 million voters. That’s compared with about 1.1 million Democrats and 1.1 million Republicans. Three out of Colorado’s seven congressional districts have more unaffiliated voters in them than voters registered with a major party. The demographics for unaffiliated voters skew toward millennials 18 to 30 years old and also include many military voters, McReynolds says, noting the two groups are often some of the least likely to vote.
For a state that’s almost evenly balanced among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, general elections are won by candidates who successfully woo unaffiliated voters, who have for decades been a kind of black box for political operatives trying to discern which way unaffiliateds lean. The big swing vote population seems happy to be uncharacterizable. In 2014, Republican Cory Gardner won a U.S. Senate seat in a statewide election while voters in that same election re-elected Democrat John Hickenlooper to the governor’s office.
But unlike the Democratic and Republican parties, the state’s largest voting bloc does not have an official spokesperson or someone who lobbies the government or the public on its behalf. Such voters probably don’t want one, either, bringing to mind the old Groucho Marx quote: I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.
Paul Noel Fiorino, an arts advocate in Denver, became the first candidate to get on a statewide ballot as an unaffiliated candidate when he gathered enough petition signatures for a run for governor in 2006.
“I feel voting should be your secret,” he says, but as for being able to find out which primary an unaffiliated voter chose to participate in, “I think it should be public.” If you’re unaffiliated but choose to play in a party’s early nominating contest, he believes, then you’re exposing yourself to all the transparency that might come along with it.
Jeffrey Roberts, who runs the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and who watchdogs open records and open government in the state, says the privacy interests are obvious but the public interest aspect for disclosure might be harder to see.
“Many people are listed as unaffiliated voters because they want to be perceived as independent and don’t want to be bugged by operatives from any political party during an election cycle, although that may be unavoidable,” he says. But, he adds, people concerned about the integrity of elections might want that information to make sure all the numbers add up after the ballots are cast.
“It could help the public ensure that votes have been counted accurately, and it would provide a more complete picture of voting in a primary election,” says Roberts.
Those who want unaffiliated voters to publicly disclose the party primary they vote in say the primaries have always been open to unaffiliated voters. That’s true, but only to an extent. Unaffiliated voters can currently request a primary ballot but to do so they have to switch their registration and become a member of that party. The new law allows unaffiliated voters to remain unaffiliated throughout the process.
One constituency of unaffiliated voters who might also be interested in the public-information aspect of the new law are journalists, some of whom choose not to affiliate with a party. Secretary of State spokeswoman Lynn Bartels, a former reporter herself, said it was an issue she heard from some during the Prop. 108 campaign.
“I kept telling people— and this was a year ago— I’m going, all those reporters who were saying ‘I don’t want anybody to know what primary I participated in,’ it’s not going to work that way,’” she says.
McReynolds believes at the very least public disclosure should be optional for unaffiliated voters under the new law.
“In addition to having a right to affiliate or to participate with a political organization … I think the reverse of that is that you have a right not to,” she says.
David Flaherty, a pollster and Republican political consultant has studied unaffiliated voters in Colorado for a decade. He says data his firm Magellan Strategies has compiled through post-election surveys and modeling show unaffiliated voters here lean more Democratic. He expects more will vote in the Democratic gubernatorial primary next year than in the Republican contest.
“There’s an overwhelming number of younger voters who are unaffiliated,” he says, adding, “They basically came on the rolls to vote for Barack Obama.”
But, he says, the ability to obtain public information about what primary an unaffiliated voter chose will bring even more clarity to the voting patterns of those elusive non-party people.
“As a guy who does this for a living I love it,” Flaherty says about making the information public.
What the ballots will look like is something the Secretary of State’s office is still working out. Mailing a Democratic and Republican ballot to each unaffiliated voter will cost county clerks twice as much. Mailing one so-called super ballot that includes candidates from both parties might confuse some unaffiliated voters whose ballots could be thrown out if they vote for candidates in each primary by mistake. Perhaps unaffiliated voters might be able to request the ballot they want online, says Pam Bacon, the Logan County Clerk who runs the state county clerks association.
Williams last year told people Prop. 108 was “concerning” because of a provision in it that allowed political parties to opt out of primaries with a vote by their committees, but he did not actively work against the measure.
He says he hopes to have rules about the new open primary law available for public comment by the summer.
The primary for the 2018 governor’s race will be the last Tuesday next June.
Photo by Kristin Ausk for Creative Commons on Flickr.
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