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It’s a ‘blowout hootenanny’: Ballots go out in Colorado’s 1st ‘open’ primary

Author: Vince Bzdek & Ernest Luning - June 3, 2018 - Updated: June 4, 2018


Starting this week, Colorado’s unaffiliated voters will begin casting ballots in the state’s primary elections for the first time ever.

And both major parties have crowded, competitive primaries up and down their ballots for the first time in decades.

Colorado voters in both parties are faced with contested primaries for an open seat for governor. There are also crowded races for state treasurer in both parties and for attorney general among the Democrats, as well as what’s shaping up to be primaries in six of the state’s seven congressional districts and a smattering of heated contests in legislative and other races.


Experts say no. Most primary voters will be facing more choices than ever this year, thanks to the change in voting rules.

In this 2014 file photo, Julie Christopher drops off her primary election ballot at a 24 hour ballot drop box outside the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. (Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette)

“We’re in new territory. This is the first time the Democrats have had a complete blowout hootenanny in a long, long while,” says pollster Floyd Ciruli, alluding to all the contested races in the Democratic primary for governor.

“The Republicans are apoplectic, too. This is a heavy-duty election. Everyone’s going to be working the unaffiliateds,” says Ciruli, who’s been keeping tabs on the opinion of Colorado voters for decades.

Colorado is actually the first state in the country with all-mail ballots to hold an open (or, more accurately, a semi-open primary, the distinction being that an open primary allows anyone to vote in any primary, as opposed to just unaffiliated voters being able to participate). And that could skew turnout predictions.

As far as the mechanics go, the first ballots will be mailed Monday. Republicans will get a Republican primary ballot in the mail, and Democrats will get a Democratic primary ballot, but most unaffiliated voters will get one of each and have the opportunity to pick which one to fill out and return by the June 26 deadline.

County clerks will be mailing out roughly 50 percent more ballots than in previous primaries.

Several weeks ago, Secretary of State Wayne Williams kicked off an education campaign to encourage Colorado’s 1.4 million unaffiliated voters to go online and request either a Democratic or Republican primary ballot by late May, potentially saving county governments plenty in postage and avoiding confusion in the next couple weeks.

But the time to declare ended last Tuesday, May 29. Unaffiliated voters who didn’t declare a preference by the cutoff date will receive both major parties’ primary ballots in the mail this week but can only return one of them — if they return them both, they’ll both be thrown out.

Primary election ballots have to be in the hands of county clerks by 7 p.m. on Election Day, June 26. If you’re mailing your ballot, it should be in the post box by June 18, but ballots can be dropped at election boxes around the county on Election Day.

Coloradans have the option of voting in person, too, at any of the Voter Service and Polling Centers around the state. Just Vote Colorado (www.justvotecolorado.org) has a handy tool that tells you where the closest dropoff ballot box or voting center is by just plugging in your address.

As of the deadline, 56.3 percent of unaffiliated voters who had expressed a preference requested Democratic ballots and 37.7 percent asked for a Republican one. (The remainder said they wanted ballots for one of the state’s minor political parties, but since none of them are holding primaries, those voters will receive a Republican and a Democratic ballot in the mail.)

According to the Secretary of State’s office, 43,282 of the state’s more than 1.4 million unaffiliated voters — just over 3 percent of the total — had requested a specific party’s ballot. Those who didn’t register a preference will get both ballots in the mail but can only vote one of them.

Although younger unaffiliated voters say they plan to vote at higher rates than their older counterparts, older voters tend to return their mail ballots more often, potentially muddying that distinction.

At the end of January, Colorado counted 3,219,953 active, registered voters — 1,163,751 of them unaffiliated, 1,003,424 Democrats and 995,090 Republicans, with the remainder belonging to minor parties. The ranks of unaffiliated voters have been growing at a significantly faster clip than either major parties’ for some time.

While there are clear demographic and geographic differences between the two major parties as a whole — Republicans tend to be older, whiter, more likely to be male and less likely to live in urban cores, with Democrats tending the other direction — it’s harder to characterize unaffiliated voters in Colorado, according to voter registration and polling data.

Pundits, pollsters and political consultants say common perceptions about unaffiliated voters tend to be mistaken — and that those voters’ participation in the election could influence the results in ways different than anticipated.

“It’s the political gold rush of 2018,” says Josh Penry, a principle with EIS Solutions and a former Republican Senate leader from Mesa County. “There’s gold in those hills.”


CLARIFICATION: Roughly 3 percent of Colorado’s unaffiliated voters expressed a preference for one party’s primary ballot. 

Vince Bzdek & Ernest Luning