As if the 2018 race for Colorado governor wasn’t already a fascinating affair given the number of candidates running, a new twist this year makes it even more of a unicorn.
For the first time, the state’s 1.2 million unaffiliated voters will be allowed to help choose the Democratic and Republican nominee.
Unless they proactively ask for a particular party’s ballot from the Secretary of State’s office, each independent voter will be mailed a ballot for both parties in the weeks before the June 26 primary, though they can only choose one.
A big question for political observers this year is how many of these party buckers will actually vote. Another is which party the majority of them will choose, and a third is how their influence might affect the outcome.
A new poll conducted for the Secretary of State’s Office by the Republican-leaning Colorado-based Magellan Strategies firm, gives us an early snapshot, albeit with a caveat.
According to the survey of about 500 unaffiliated voters who have participated in recent general elections and are likely to vote in the 2018 general election, 39 percent said they intend to vote in the primaries this year. Of those, 27 percent said they plan to vote in the Democratic primary, and 12 percent plan to vote in the GOP primary. Among the unaffiliated voters asked, 28 percent said they were undecided about whether they will cast a ballot in the primaries and 33 percent said they do not plan to get involved; 45 percent said they knew they would have the option, meaning more than half surveyed did not.
As for which way they lean, 52 percent described themselves as moderate, 27 percent as liberal, and 16 percent as conservative. Another 5 percent declined to say. The poll was conducted between Dec. 11 and Dec. 13, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.38 percent.
David Flaherty, CEO of Magellan Strategies, whose public affairs and polling firm has researched the state’s unaffiliated voters for years, cautions that those numbers might be skewed higher because the respondents had a higher propensity of voting in previous elections than the pool of 1.2 million independent voters at large.
Right now, Flaherty personally predicts that between 15 and 20 percent might vote in the Democratic primary, and between 9 and 11 percent will take a GOP ballot. A lot, of course, could change in the next three months, and plenty depends on how much candidates and their campaigns target independent voters to draw them in.
In the meantime, the Secretary of State’s Office is about to embark on a big statewide publicity campaign — beginning March 30 in Grand Junction — aimed at making sure unaffiliated voters understand they can only choose one ballot if they want to participate in this year’s primaries or their vote won’t count.
The new rules allowing unaffiliated voters to help choose political party nominees came after voters in 2016 passed a statewide ballot initiative called Prop 108.
For a state that’s almost evenly balanced among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, those independents could be a wildcard in this year’s election.
“We’ve always known the unaffiliated voter will tend to lean more Democrat [more than] Republican in choosing a candidate,” says Flaherty, who has studied them through predictive modeling. Hundreds of thousands of them, he says, came onto the rolls in 2008 and 2012 to vote for Barack Obama for president, and they are overwhelmingly female and millennials.
This year’s June primaries will bring more clarity to the voting patterns of these elusive non-party people.
While conducting its latest survey, Magellan asked unaffiliated voters why they wouldn’t vote in the primaries this year even though they’ll have the chance. The top reasons were that voters said they are unfamiliar with who is running, feel like their votes won’t have an impact, and because they don’t want to pick a party.
“There’s almost this sort of sentiment that it was a real chore for them to get straight information on all of these candidates, and obviously with the governor’s race they just feel overwhelmed,” Flaherty says.
Related: There are more than a dozen candidates running for governor in broad primaries on both sides this year. To learn more about each of them, check out The Colorado Independent’s 2018 Governor’s Race page.
Many of those who spoke on the phone to conductors of the latest poll— half on cell phones, half on landlines— also said they worried about making the wrong choice and voting for someone who doesn’t actually represent their values, Flaherty says.
“Unaffiliated voters are truly different than just a regular Democrat or Republican in their interest and in their knowledge and … their desire to pay attention to politics,” he says. “It was more like a lot of them were like, ‘I don’t want to make a mistake.’”
In June, Colorado’s active unaffiliated voters— click here to check your registration status— will get a ballot from both major parties. Again, they will only be allowed to choose one party’s ballot. If they try to mail in two, their votes will be thrown out— or their ballot will be “spoiled.” Unaffiliated voters who vote in a party’s primary will still remain unaffiliated, but which primary they chose will be a matter of public record.
It’s those potentially spoiled ballots the Secretary of State’s office wants to vaccinate before the election.
“The major thrust in the campaign is to ensure the people know they can only vote on one of them, they can’t vote on both,” says Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams who is in charge of overseeing elections in Colorado. “For us, we know not every voter always reads all of the voting instructions.”