Littwin: Caucus? Primary? Whatever we do must be better than the status quo

Kelley Minars

Democracy is apparently returning to Colorado. And all it took was a push from that known authoritarian, Donald Trump.

In a rare show of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans are supporting a return to a presidential primary system in the state, a process we gave up back in 2003 because, well, it cost too much. Seriously. States pay for primaries and parties pay for caucuses. And because of budget problems— blame TABOR if you like— the state trashed the primary system, which had been overwhelmingly approved by voters 13 years before, and returned to the caucus system.

There are many memorable quotes about the price of freedom. John Kennedy said the cost may be high, but that “Americans have always paid it.” But there are few quotes about abandoning small-d democratic primaries for voter-excluding caucuses in order to save a few bucks (OK, $5 to $7 million bucks, but still).

But now it looks as if primaries are on the way back— and in a hurry. If the parties can agree on the wording of a bill, they’ll push it through this session, which ends in a few weeks.

Why the rush?

I guess it’s to save embarrassment, which is where Trump comes in. He’s the candidate who has said the Colorado system is “rigged” and is threatening to challenge the legitimacy of the state’s Republican delegates at the national convention.

Whatever the Donald says, the system isn’t rigged. The Republicans followed the complex, multi-step rules they’d created. 

But it is rigged if you’re talking about the will of the people, as it is in every caucus state. As you might know, Ted Cruz won all available delegates at the GOP state convention, even though it’s possible that since Cruz is disliked by virtually everyone, many Colorado Republicans might also dislike him. I mean, it’s simple math. And some— again, with the math— probably would have picked Trump.

So, if the point of caucuses or primaries is to reflect the views of actual voters, this seems like a major failure. 

Republicans failed again when they said there would be no presidential straw poll this year, in an apparent effort to keep Trump voters at home. And state chair Steve House made it even worse when he explained that Republicans didn’t want a preference poll because they feared too many people would show up.

And then, of course, so many did show up—at least at the Democratic caucuses— that everyone was calling the night chaotic, never a good word to associate with your election process. It gets worse. Democrats actually got the delegate total wrong— and apparently forgot to tell Bernie Sanders about the mistake.

It was your basic disaster. And so the prospect of a primary is returning. Most people will get a ballot in the mail, which seems so much better than having to spend a night in the gym at your neighborhood school.

It could have happened in time for this year’s election, except Republicans in the 2015 legislative session changed their minds for reasons still being debated. But now that there’s general agreement, but going back to a primary is still not as easy as you’d suppose. The issue is what to do with the unaffiliated voters who make up 37 percent of Colorado total, more than Republicans, more than Democrats, and making them the largest voting bloc in Colorado. 

How to handle them in a primary election is a tricky question. If primaries are about parties choosing their candidates, then it makes perfect sense for, well, parties to choose their own candidates. But we do have a rigged system— rigged to favor two parties, anyway— and it doesn’t make sense that if there are two major candidates running for president that fewer than two-thirds of the people in your state are eligible to help select them. We’ve watched closed primaries around the country, and they’re not a pretty sight.

The fight will come in determining what kind of open primary we want and who gets which ballots. The bill that still isn’t ready to view would apparently allow unaffiliated voters to temporarily join one party or the other. You’re, say, a Democrat for a day and get a Democratic ballot in the mail, unless you don’t get your registration temporarily changed in time, in which case you vote on Election Day (as I do, because I’m old fashioned that way). And then you’re unaffiliated again.

The problem there is that unaffiliated voters would have to take one big step (claiming that temporary affiliation) that Democrats and Republicans wouldn’t. So, some are proposing we mail both Democratic and Republican ballots to unaffiliated voters and let them decide which one to return. Secretary of State Wayne Williams said he worries some voters will return both ballots and therefore be disqualified. I worry that Williams worries that Colorado voters are really that dumb, but, if we remember our Florida-butterfly-ballot history, I guess it’s not entirely out of the question.

If the legislature doesn’t act for some reason, there will probably be ballot measures this November directing unaffiliated voters to receive both ballots without having to temporarily declare for either party. My guess is the legislature will act for inclusion, if only in self-defense.

After all, bipartisanship does work occasionally at the Capitol. The idea of non-partisanship, though, that’s a different story. Either way, it has to be better than what we have now. 

[Photo credit: Kelley Minars via Creative Commons on Flickr]


  1. I lived and worked in CO when TABOR was passed and it became evident very early that TABOR was going to be a disaster. Many states where the republicans tried to introduce and pass it, first looked at CO and CA and said “no thanks” to that horrid piece of legislation. CO is continuing to do themselves harm with the TABOR amendment, they should repeal it statewide.

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