To think big in Colorado politics, start small with precinct caucus
Author: Thomas E. Cronin and Robert D. Loevy, special to Colorado Politics - March 4, 2018 - Updated: March 4, 2018
The race to become Colorado’s next governor — along with many other elected offices — swings into high gear at 7 p.m. Tuesday with political party precinct caucuses.
The eventual winner must compete for supporters at five crucial electoral stages – the upcoming neighborhood precinct caucuses, late March county assemblies, an April political party state assembly, a June 26 statewide mail-in political party primary, and ultimately the Nov. 6 statewide general election.
But, it all begins with the precinct caucuses. A Democratic precinct caucus and a separate Republican precinct caucus are scheduled in every voting precinct in the state. The dedicated partisans who attend the caucuses are a self-selected political aristocracy. They have a major voice in who gets elected to political office in Colorado – at all levels – and in the political ideology of those elected officials.
It is easy to qualify to attend a party precinct caucus. All you have to be is a registered voter in the particular political party for 60 days in Colorado and 30 days in your particular precinct. Unaffiliated voters can attend but cannot vote.
That is why they are called a “self-selected” aristocracy. Almost everyone in Colorado could register to vote in a political party and go to the local party precinct caucus, if they wanted to – but few bother.
Party caucuses are usually held at a local elementary school, library, or other public gathering place. The most important thing that happens at them is that delegates are elected to the political party’s county assembly. In most states they call it a county convention, but in Colorado it is a county assembly.
You can contact the county headquarters of your major political party to find out your precinct number and caucus location.
Serious caucus goers will put their name in to go to the county assembly, because that is where the real power lies.
Some people, however, are content to just go to the precinct caucus and vote for a group of their neighbors to go to the county assembly. They care enough about their political party to go to their neighborhood party caucus for two hours or so on a weeknight, but they feel that is enough to demonstrate their party loyalty and support.
But there is danger in going to a precinct caucus and thinking that is all that will be required of you. In some precincts few people attend the party caucus, and anyone who comes will suddenly be under pressure to be an elected delegate to the party county assembly. The assembly is going to take an evening or a Saturday out of your life.
Other party caucuses are well-attended, though, and there can be real competition for who will represent the precinct at the county assembly. There could be multiple candidates, election speeches, and voting to elect the county assembly delegates. In such precincts, it can take years of attending the party caucus to round up the votes needed to go to the county assembly.
Here is the key to understanding the precinct caucuses. They may seem inconsequential, but they are the gateway to the county assembly, where the shape of the fall elections is very much at stake.
In Colorado, the county assembly nominates party candidates for countywide offices such as sheriff, county clerk, county treasurer, and county assessor. The various party candidates give short speeches – and get supporting speeches from others – and then the assembly delegates vote to nominate their preferred candidate.
Any candidate who gets 30 percent of the assembly vote is automatically on the ballot for the party primary election in June. Note there is a new wrinkle this year. Any candidate who gets 10 percent to 29 percent of the vote at the county assembly can petition on to the June primary ballot by gathering a specified number of signatures.
But there is more activity at the county assembly. Delegates break up into district assemblies to nominate party candidates for the state House of Representatives and the state Senate in Denver. In addition, county assembly delegates vote to elect the county’s delegates to the political party’s state assembly, where candidates for statewide offices will be nominated.
What happens at a precinct caucus varies a lot. In some areas, a political party can be so weak that no one shows up to organize and run the precinct caucus. In most places, however, a group of party loyalists will regularly attend the caucus and, if no one else wants to attend the county assembly, will go themselves.
In some cases, representatives of candidates for elected office will come to party precinct caucuses, usually well-attended precinct caucuses, and put in a good word for their candidate before the voting for county assembly begins.
Savvy candidates for elected office have learned how to win with the precinct caucus system. They know that the same people year after year tend to go to precinct caucuses and become delegates to the county assembly. They obtain lists of these “regulars” and contact them – by mail, by telephone, in person – in an effort to get their votes at the county assembly and, perhaps, at the state assembly later on.
Colorado still has at least a dozen candidates seeking the Democratic or the Republican nomination for governor. To date most have been preoccupied with raising funds, obtaining petition signatures and building paid and volunteer staff.
Now, there will be last-minute efforts by some of the campaigns to urge supporters to turn out and “caucus for Stapleton” or “caucus for Johnston” etc.” Note, however, that all the campaigns will go into overdrive to win over those who are elected to or dragooned into attending their county assemblies. The next three weeks are likely to be consequential for most of this year’s campaigns.
So, if you are a registered Democrat or Republican, what is the situation at your party precinct caucus? Do many people go, and you will be just one more person there? Or is your caucus lightly attended, and you will find it relatively easy to be elected to the county assembly?
You will have to go to your precinct caucus on March 6 to find out. If you do go, consider a run for the county assembly.
Colorado College political scientists Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy have both served as precinct chairs and have attended dozens of caucuses and assemblies. They discuss our party and election systems in detail in their book Colorado Politics and Policy: Governing a Purple State.