For the first time, Colorado’s roughly 1.2 million unaffiliated voters will be able to cast ballots in Democratic or Republican primaries, including in this year’s race for governor.
So far, more have been choosing Democratic than Republican ballots.
Because of a new law passed by voters in 2016, unaffiliated voters can participate in the primary elections, but they can only vote in one party’s primary. Unaffiliated voters can request a party’s ballot online. If they don’t, they will be mailed two ballots in the mail — one for each major party. But unaffiliated voters are only allowed to mail in one of those ballots. If they mail in two, their votes will not count.
The primaries aren’t until June 26 — and the ballots aren’t even set yet — but unaffiliated voters can go online and select which ballot they want to mailed to them before Election Day. When new unaffiliated voters register to vote they can also choose which ballot they want when registering, like at the DMV, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
The ballots won’t hit their mailboxes until a couple weeks before the June 26 primary election.
Since the option for unaffiliated voters to choose a party’s ballot became available last August, 55 percent of the roughly 34,000 Coloradans who did have asked for a Democratic ballot, and 38 percent asked for one for the Republican Party primary, according to numbers from the Secretary of State’s office. The remaining 7 percent have requested ballots for a third party.
For the past month, Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams has been rolling out an educational campaign to make sure the state’s largest population of voters — those who don’t choose a political party — know they can participate in the primaries, and to help ensure they don’t spoil their ballots by trying cast more than one in June.
In Denver County, about 450 unaffiliated voters have selected a party’s primary ballot since the start of April, says Amber McReynolds who runs elections there. About 10 times more than that— 4,700— chose a ballot before the marketing campaign began.* As an unaffiliated voter herself, McReynolds calls asking for a certain party’s ballot “affiliation light.”
“You’re being tagged,” she says. “You’re selecting something that’s now tied to your record.” (While who someone votes for obviously won’t become a public record, which ballot an unaffiliated voter chooses will.)
Colorado’s 2018 governor’s race will be the first general election in the country in which candidates will be picked in the primaries with ballots cast by mail that are open to unaffiliated voters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. How that dynamic affects the election, and how independents using that process ultimately lean will be a major wildcard in our gubernatorial race and closely watched by other states considering open, all-mail ballots.
Jefferson County, anchored by Golden and Lakewood, has more unaffiliated voters than any of its 63 counterparts. JeffCo long has been considered one of the swingiest counties in Colorado and the nation.
In 2016, advocates of passing the new open-primary law said they hoped it would provide a moderating effect on the outcome of primary elections. Closed primaries, some said, create a dynamic where candidates run toward the extreme poles of their party, producing less moderate candidates in general elections.
“By allowing unaffiliated voters to vote, we believe our elected officials will be rewarded for solving problems and finding solutions,” Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which supported Prop 108, said at a recent event.
But as Democratic strategist Alan Salazar told The Colorado Independent, “The irony is that this law was supposed to moderate the extremes, particularly in the GOP, but Trump’s dysfunctional presidency is on trial with voters this year. So that will mean unaffiliated voters flock to the Dem banner in 2018.”
Morgan Carroll, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party, says the new numbers show voters are more interested in what Democrats have to offer — “better health care, better roads, better gun safety and more funding for education.” And, she says, “they’re turned off by the right-wing agenda being peddled by Trump and [Walker] Stapleton,” a swipe at the Republican state treasurer who is running for governor against three other candidates in his party.
This year, Democrats have at least one candidate on the ballot in Colorado for every Congressional, legislative and major statewide race. They even secured a candidate to run for every office in El Paso County – the state’s biggest Republican stronghold – for the first time in as long as party officials there can remember.
As part of the Secretary of State’s campaign to educate unaffiliated voters about their involvement in primary elections, the office commissioned a poll, conducted in December, to gauge how many might participate and which way they lean politically.
According to that survey of about 500 unaffiliated voters, 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. Some 45 percent said they knew they would have the option, meaning more than half surveyed did not.
Each week, Secretary of State Williams posts on Twitter how many unaffiliated voters requested ballots and from which party.
As of today, 19,452 unaffiliated voters have asked for a Dem ballot for June 26 primary (or 55.2%); 13,473 U's asked for a GOP ballot (or 38.1%). Others, 3rd-party ballots; if no contested primary they'll get both R & D ballot. Can only vote one. #UChooseCO #COpolitics
— Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams (@COSecofState) April 30, 2018
In the past three months, according to data from his office, the number of unaffiliated voters in Colorado has been growing faster than that of registered Democrats and Republicans. By Jan. 1, there were 1,163,751 active registered unaffiliated voters. By April 1, there were 1,184,408 of them — an increase of 1.7 percent. In that same time period, registered Democrats grew from 1,003,424 to 1,012,125 — a 0.86 percent increase. Republicans went from 995,090 to 1,000,229— an increase of 0.5 percent..
Williams himself is up for re-election in 2018. He faces Democrat Jena Griswold who is campaigning on her support for a law that would require presidential candidates to release their tax returns to qualify for the ballot in Colorado and on making it easier to see the role of dark money influence in elections.
*A previous version of this story transposed some numbers