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Picking a Primary by Mail—How's That Going to Work?

Next spring, expect political reformers to have all eyes on Colorado's unusual new open primary system to see if it causes more harm than good.
Donald Trump addresses a rally at the National Western Complex in Denver, Colorado, on November 5th, 2016.

Donald Trump addresses a rally at the National Western Complex in Denver, Colorado, on November 5th, 2016.

For many years, Colorado's political parties have selected nominees for office via a closed caucus/primary system. Led in part by unaffiliated voters who wanted a say in party nominations, state voters rejected the closed system last year and imposed an open primary on the state's parties. But voters are in for an interesting experience next spring when they seek to participate in the state's unusual new open primary.

Two particular features make this a potentially weird and error-prone election:

  • The election will be conducted entirely via mail-in ballot.
  • It will be an open primary, meaning that unaffiliated voters get to decide in which primary they want to vote.

Some states with open primaries have similar features, allowing voters to choose which primary ballot they want when they walk into the polling place. But Colorado faces the additional wrinkle of the mail-in ballot. How does an unaffiliated voter get to choose?

The current plan is that unaffiliated voters will receive two ballots in the mail, one for each of the major parties. (Colorado law distinguishes between "major" and "minor" parties, a major party being one that received at least 10 percent of the vote in the last gubernatorial election.) Then the voter will need to pick just one of those ballots, fill it out, and mail it back.

Chances are, this won't go smoothly. A good number of voters will likely fill out two ballots and send them both back, which will invalidate both of them. Some will probably want to pick and choose, voting, say, in the Republican gubernatorial primary and a Democratic House primary. They can't do that. What's more, some are concerned that by returning just one party's ballot, they'll be pegged as belonging to that party, and their unaffiliated status is important to them.

All of this is to say that there are likely to be problems with the implementation of this open primary. One of the main goals of the new primary system in the state—the widespread participation of unaffiliated voters in the nomination of candidates—will likely not be fully realized, at least not the first time around.

Yet this echoes other examples of primary reforms across the country. Quite often, unaffiliated voters simply don't participate, at least not in very high numbers. One of the main hopes of California's top-two primary system, which voters adopted in 2010 after years of a closed primary, was higher voter turnout. Those hopes haven't really been borne out. Indeed, one of the reasons politicians from open primary states don't appear to be more moderate than those from closed primary states is because independents just don't show up for primaries very frequently.

This may end up working out just fine in Colorado. Even if there are a substantial number of spoiled ballots in the 2018 primaries, county registrars may refine the system, and voters will develop a better understanding the system over time.

What's more, this dilemma may end up being avoided altogether; Colorado's Republicans are considering not having their primary at all. Under the new primary law, they might just opt for caucuses, leaving only Democrats to conduct the mail-in primary.

But the eyes of political reformers will be on Colorado next spring to see if they can pull this thing off.