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TRAIL MIX: Questions abound as Colorado launches inaugural ‘open’ primary

Author: Ernest Luning - June 7, 2018 - Updated: June 15, 2018

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Republican Democrat(iStock photo)

In a few weeks, we’ll know the outcome of Colorado’s great experiment joining the ranks of states that allow unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in party primaries.

Until ballots are counted on June 26 — and pending a rigorous data analysis along with some polling after that — candidates and election officials, not to mention curious residents, are looking at a mountain of unknowns.

While Colorado is known as a purple state, swinging between Democratic and Republican wins, the composition of its voters diverged from the standard description years ago. It’s no longer nearly evenly divided between voters registered as Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated.

According to the most recent statistics maintained by the secretary of state’s office, unaffiliated voters far outnumber those belonging to either party, at about 38 percent of the total. The Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans, but both account for about 30 percent, with members of minor parties making up the balance.

That enormous unaffiliated pool of voters, however, represents more questions than answers as its ranks receive primary ballots in the mail this week.

How many will vote in the primaries? What affect might they have on the results in contests up and down the ballot and across the state?

The open primary is the result of Initiative 108, passed by voters statewide in 2016, which established the ability for unaffiliated voters to vote in party primaries without having to register with a party. Enabling legislation passed by the General Assembly last year firmed up other parameters around the process.

(Technically, it’s a semi-open primary, since a truly open one would allow any voter to vote in any primary, but Democrats and Republicans can only vote in their party’s primaries.)

The ballot measure was financed by Kent Thiry, CEO of Denver-based kidney dialysis giant DaVita Inc., who also supported a companion measure to establish presidential primaries, also adopted by voters.

Boiled down, the argument was basically that unaffiliated voters were already paying for the major parties to conduct primaries, so they might as well get to participate.

As voting begins, the big debate in political and election official circles is how many of the state’s 1.4 million unaffiliated voters can be expected to turn in ballots, and which of them will vote in which party’s primary.

In some ways, experts say, the 2018 primary election is the best possible occasion to launch the open primary in Colorado, with voter enthusiasm measuring off the charts and vigorous primary races crowding the ballot, which should encourage higher participation and yield measurable results off the bat.

Pollsters — including Republican pollster David Flaherty, founder of Magellan Strategies, who conducted a survey last fall for the secretary of state as officials prepared to launch the effort, and Democratic pollster Rick Ridder, a founder of RBI Strategies & Research Ridder, who regularly polls the electorate — estimate unaffiliated turnout will be around 13 percent of registered voters, although other analysts predict it could be nearly three times that, closer to anticipated turnout for partisans.

Depending, the difference — hundreds of thousands of votes — could be minimal or swamp the preferences expressed by Democrats and Republicans.

There aren’t a lot of models to help determine how Colorado’s unaffiliated voters will act. For one, no other state that has a primary like this votes like Colorado does, with every voter getting ballots in the mail.

The best guess is that could boost turnout, but it’ll be hard to tell whether to credit the relative ease of voting, the intense interest in the primary or turnout efforts by candidates hoping to tap previously unavailable caches of votes.

Ridder told Trail Mix that the best model might be the New Hampshire presidential primary, where independent voters don’t have to declare a party, and about half vote in each party’s contest. That high profile election might mirror the interest in Colorado’s primary, although it isn’t a mail-in ballot, which could alter turnout accordingly.

One thing is for sure, political and election observers alike agree. And that’s that Colorado’s unaffiliated voters are anything but a bloc.

While a narrow slice probably matches stereotypes — moderate ticket-splitters occupying the space between the two parties — the difference between unaffiliated voters can be greater than the difference within parties.

“For us to characterize independents as a monolith is at best folly and at worst completely ignorant,” Ridder said with a chuckle. “The issues that independents care about are the same issues everything everyone else cares about — jobs, health care, education — but they can range from very highly libertarian to highly government-centric, from Ron Paul supporters to Bernie Sanders supporters.”

As campaigns and media types — including Trail Mix — monitor the vote returns over the next couple of weeks, a picture of the unaffiliated voters is likely to emerge.

Until then, place your bets — in jurisdictions where that’s legal — and hang on.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.