How Colorado Is Trying to Bring Unaffiliated Voters Into the Primary Election Fold

Colorado is attempting an unusual style of primary election next month: allowing unaffiliated voters to choose which primary they'd like to vote in. What does that mean for politics in the Centennial State?
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A man casts a vote in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary on February 20th, 2016, in West Columbia, South Carolina.

With Colorado's state primary election scheduled for next month, some voters are beginning to question the state's unusual new party nomination system.

Colorado is attempting an unusual style of primary election on June 26th. It's technically a semi-closed primary; people registered with a political party can vote only in that party's primary, but unaffiliated voters, who previously could not participate in the state's primary, now get to choose which primary they'd like to vote in. There's an added complication: The vote will be conducted entirely by mail. Unaffiliated voters, who comprise more than a third of Colorado's registered voters, can choose in advance which ballot they'd like to receive in the mail. If they don't make a choice, they will receive both a Democratic and a Republican ballot, and they can only return one of them. (Sending back both amounts to an overvote; both ballots are invalidated.)

There's another, more existential rub with this election: determining what to do with the information about unaffiliated voters' choice of primary. There was quite a bit of wrangling in the legislature last year over just this issue. Some argued that, in order to participate in a primary, unaffiliated voters should be required to join a party, although they'd be free to abandon that party right after the primary. There is, after all, a solid logic for limiting vital party decisions to those who have a stake in that party. On the other hand, a more open primary was what voters signaled when they passed Proposition 108 back in 2016, and some in the legislature argued that forcing unaffiliated voters to join a party violated the spirit of that initiative.

Legislators hammered out a compromise in which unaffiliated voters' choice of ballot becomes public information, but those voters aren't considered members of their chosen primary party and will not receive unsolicited future ballots from that party. Amber McReynolds, Denver's elections director, has described this as "affiliation light." Vote choice remains private, but a party lean is disclosed.

This information is potentially very useful. In theory, when an unaffiliated voter chooses one party's primary over another's that tells us something about that voter's leanings. Given the unusual large percentage of Colorado voters who are unaffiliated, that's valuable data for parties and campaigns. As quite a bit of survey research tells us, most voters who call themselves independent are actually very loyal party voters, but they prefer not to identify as such. Figuring out who the loyal partisans are among this group has always been tricky, but the ballot information makes that easier. Parties and campaigns may target those voters in November, treating them as likely party ticket supporters who need that extra nudge to show up and vote.

But this is hardly a perfect indicator of party preference. In fact, there are quite a few reasons unaffiliated voters might pick a particular party's primary yet still not care very much for that party. A voter might want to "raid" or meddle in the primary of a party they don't like to try to nominate a weak candidate. This is rare but not unheard of. A voter might consider one party's contest uninteresting and just choose another party's contest because the outcome looks close and exciting. Relatedly, while the gubernatorial race in Colorado will probably drive the most interest in this election, there are a number of competitive congressional and state legislative races with competitive primaries. What motivates an unaffiliated voter to pick a party primary may well vary from district to district.

Relatedly, political observers have used these initial ballot requests as an indicator of the intent of unaffiliated voters in the upcoming primary. By the end of April, the Colorado Independent noted, 34,000 Colorado unaffiliated voters had requested party ballots, with 55 percent of them requesting Democratic ballots, 38 percent requesting Republican ones, and another 7 percent requesting third-party ballots. If this represents the breakdown of unaffiliated voters in the November election, that's very good news for Democrats, but we really have no idea if that's the way things will go.

In general, unaffiliated or independent voters do not have a great record of turning out in primary elections even when they're allowed and encouraged to. But what Colorado's political establishment chooses to do with new information about unaffiliated voters remains an interesting question. It seems likely to affect the way voters think about parties and their place in them.

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