Photo: Voters participate in a caucus in Denver on March 1.
If the first in a series of forums on Colorado’s caucus and primary system is any indication, voters love caucuses, despite the headaches, and strongly oppose moving back to a presidential primary system.
Still in question is whether such forums – organized without legislative authorization by Senate Republicans – can be trusted to reflect the views of the general public.
On Saturday, a group of mostly Republican state senators listened as voters, voter groups, and Libertarian and Republican party officials gave their assessment of the primary-overhaul proposals that died in the 2016 legislative session and shared their thoughts on what to do in future election years.
The forum was noteworthy for the absence of Democrats. A spokesman for Colorado’s Democratic Party said Chairman Rick Palacio wasn’t invited to the forum until the last minute and declined to participate in what on Twitter he called a “work of fiction.” The forum was announced by Republicans a month ago without any Democrats listed on the panel, although Republicans said Democrats had been invited to testify.
Sen. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge, a moderate Democrat, did participate as one of six senators on the panel, which included Republican Sens. Kevin Grantham of Canon City, Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, Ray Scott of Grand Junction, Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling and Laura Woods of Arvada.
Grantham called the lack of Democratic participation beyond Sen. Jahn “unfortunate.”
A lively back-and-forth erupted on Twitter during the forum over just who was invited and when. In the end, Sonnenberg tweeted to Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman of Denver, “Please with sugar on top join us at future Election Study Group hearing. Let’s solve these problems together.”
The panel heard from state GOP Chair Steve House, who addressed the problems Republican voters experienced at the March caucus. Colorado GOP voters were not allowed to formally express a preference for a presidential candidate at their caucuses, although voters in some counties and individual locations did so anyway. The decision not to pick a presidential candidate left Republican caucus voters lamenting that they would not be able to pick delegates that reflected their views and negated the value of having the caucuses in the first place.
Democrats did get to choose a presidential candidate, but long lines and disorganization raised concerns caucus night that many never got a chance to vote.
House said that by the next presidential election in 2020, it’s likely the state GOP will authorize caucus participation in a preference poll that will “bind” delegates to a presidential candidate.
“It’s incumbent upon us as a party to do a better job,” he said.
Libertarians showed up in force on Saturday, led by party Chair Jay North. Primaries belong to each political party, not the state, he said – a theme that was echoed by many who testified. Political parties are membership organizations, and that would preclude unaffiliated voters from participating either in caucuses or primaries, as North, House and other witnesses see it.
North later said he would back a presidential primary so long as it wasn’t paid for by taxpayers. Otherwise, he’s opposed to the idea. The Libertarians did hold their own presidential primary this spring.
“You still have to be in our party to vote,” North said. Allowing an unaffiliated voter to vote in a party primary would be like letting “a vegan decide on a Beef Council ad.”
Other Libertarians who spoke at the forum said they opposed the presidential primary even if it was paid for and conducted only by the major parties.
GOP chief House advocated for the taxpayer-funded primary, stating it would be impossible for the major parties to cover the event costs or manage the primary election without the apparatus of the Secretary of State and the county clerks.
Tim Griesmer, representing Secretary of State Wayne Williams, noted that Williams had backed the two primary bills that failed in the legislature. Both would have set up a taxpayer-funded presidential primary, with one bill allowing unaffiliated voters to temporarily affiliate with a major party in order to vote.
Williams believes a presidential primary is the best way to select candidates, Griesmer said, although Williams also supports caucuses that determine candidates for state and local races.
The Secretary of State is interested in future legislation, so long as it takes into consideration the cost of a primary election, which is estimated at around $5 million, Griesmer said. The office is not reimbursed for primary elections, and would prefer to see the costs covered by the state’s General Fund. Without that reimbursement, the Secretary of State might have to increase business filing fees, which Williams doesn’t favor.
Griesmer also noted that Williams has convened a bipartisan election committee that, among other tasks, is looking at the presidential primary issue.Colorado briefly held presidential primaries from 1992 until 2000, repealing the law in 2003.
While the Colorado County Clerks Association hasn’t taken a position on allowing unaffiliated voters to participate in a primary, Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder Matt Crane said most county clerks are sympathetic to major parties being membership organizations, which allows them to set their own rules, such as who can participate.
The forums are being planned at the same time that a group backed called “Let Colorado Vote” is proposing two ballot measures that would would bring presidential primaries back to the state and open up both major parties’ primary elections to unaffiliated voters. Backed by the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, other business groups and Walmart heir Ben Walton of Aspen, among others, the group is collecting signatures to qualify both measures for the November ballot. Those petitions are due by August 8.
Curtis Hubbard, representing Let Colorado Vote, told the panel that the chaos around the March caucuses showed the state needs to modernize its election systems. Colorado has more than one million unaffiliated voters, most of whom are under the age of 40. Such a large group of voters, he noted, shouldn’t be “left on the sidelines.”
“Unaffiliated does not mean uninterested,” Hubbard said. Allowing independents to vote in a primary would put Colorado in line with other states.
Of the more than two dozen voters who spoke publicly about their views on the presidential primary Saturday, virtually all but one were against it.
Republican Joan Poston from Denver said the state should focus on voter fraud, petition fraud and signature verifications rather than bringing back the presidential primary. And Anil Mathai, the chair of the Adams County GOP, said it’s up to voters to participate. “I understand the anger” around the March caucus, Mathai said, but if “people don’t show up, that’s their problem.”
“Colorado has a fair system, and any person can rise up to become governor if you work hard,” he added. “Save the caucus. It’s the best thing you have right now,” he added.
Sue Warren, chair of the Denver GOP agreed.
“If unaffiliated voters choose not to affiliate, they don’t get a choice in picking our party’s leaders,” she said.
Sen. Laura Woods, R-Arvada, wasn’t surprised by the overwhelming support for the caucus system and lack of interest in presidential primaries. “I think we have a small representation of the state here, so the process needs to continue” with the next meetings and with a citizens’ survey the group has devised.
Jahn, the lone Democrat, said she loves hearing “from the public” on this issue, and that she notices stark differences between party insiders and outsiders.
“I sensed the true party activists want to keep [the system as it is], but what do new voters want? They say they feel disenfranchised,” she said.
The self-appointed study group intends to hold at least three more meetings before late September, in Pueblo, Fort Collins and Grand Junction. Dates have yet to be announced.
For those who are unable or unwilling to testify, the group has set up a “citizen’s opinion survey” to ask the public whether the state should change its laws on how party candidates are selected for public office. The survey looks at four areas: presidential primary options, changes in state and local office primaries, the role of unaffiliated voters and the role of the party caucus system.
The survey, which is open to all Coloradans regardless of party affiliation, or lack thereof, is available here. http://www.coloradosenaterepublicans.com/elections_study_group_questionnaire.
Photo: Susan Greene