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Abandoning the Caucus in Colorado

The Centennial State is considering a major change to how we determine presidential candidates.

By Seth Masket


The Colorado State Capitol building in Denver, Colorado. (Photo: Greg O’Beirne/Wikimedia Commons)

The presidential race has really drowned out coverage of other down-ballot contests, especially ballot initiatives. But Colorado is one of several states considering a dramatic change to the presidential nominating system this year. Supporters of the initiative are hoping to bring an end to the caucus.

Colorado was one of many states where voters expressed widespread anger over this year’s caucus system. But the complaints had a bipartisan twist to them. Democrats were angry in part because facilities seemed inadequate for accommodating high turnout, and in part because the choice of the caucus-goers, Bernie Sanders, ended up losing the nomination contest. Republicans, meanwhile, were annoyed that their state party did away with the presidential straw vote aspect of the caucus, meaning there was no real winner of the event. To some extent, people on both sides of the fence were annoyed that it was a closed contest; unaffiliated voters were not permitted to join in.

Proposition 107 is one of many initiatives on Colorado’s crowded ballot this November. The initiative would make two important changes. First, it would do away with the presidential caucus, replacing it with a primary. Unlike caucuses, which are paid for by the parties, the primaries would be paid for and administered by the state and counties, to the tune of about $5 million each cycle. Second, it would open the contests up to non-party members. Unaffiliated voters would be allowed to participate.

Nominating candidates for office is the most important decision a party makes, and opening up that decision to non-party members is a highly consequential act.

It is, in some ways, surprising that these two separate changes — switching a caucus to a primary and opening it up to non-party members — are included in the same initiative. (The initiative processes in most direct democracy states, including Colorado, are bound by a single-subject rule.) They would have important and very different consequences.

There are a number of ways to think about these possible changes in nomination contests: how they affect voters, how they affect candidates, and how they affect parties.

In terms of voters, the effect is pretty direct and sudden. Instead of participating in a two- to three-hour event on a Tuesday night, they’ll be able to cast a vote or mail in a ballot like they do in general elections. There’s definitely a tradeoff, with contests losing some of their social quality. There won’t be conversations, speeches, or debates associated with voting; it’ll be done in private. But it will be quicker and easier, and voter participation will likely rise considerably.

How will this affect candidates? That’s tougher to say. Caucus-goers often have somewhat different preferences than primary voters, but not always in predictable ways. Sanders in 2016 and Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2008 did substantially better in caucuses than in primaries. Caucus-goers aren’t necessarily more ideologically extreme than primary voters, but they are joiners. They are more likely to be parts of movements and to support candidates who campaign that way.

Will opening up contests to unaffiliated voters change the sorts of people who win? The evidence there suggests it probably won’t. Yes, Sanders tended to do better this year in open contests, as many of his most ardent supporters weren’t registered Democrats. But, for the most part, open contests don’t produce any more ideologically extreme or moderate nominees than closed contests do.

Finally, how will this affect political parties? Nominating candidates for office is the most important decision a party makes, and opening up that decision to non-party members is a highly consequential act. Yes, parties can generally adapt to it and still secure the sorts of candidates they like, but we should be asking if it’s even proper. Is it right for people who don’t care to even call themselves Democrats or Republicans to choose those parties’ leaders?

Polling suggests that most Coloradans are comfortable with this change so far and will support it on Election Day. Sadly, though, the initiative is conflating two very important things — the ease of voting, and the participation by non-party members — that should really have been left as separate issues.