Election 2018Opinion

Unaffiliated voters are improving their power and influence

Author: Robert Loevy, Special to Colorado Politics - June 18, 2018 - Updated: June 18, 2018

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This is a peak moment for Colorado’s unaffiliated voters. In the past seven years, they have gone from being neglected to being in the catbird seat.

With the June 26 primaries only a few days away, unaffiliated Coloradans are, for the first time in the state’s history, filling out either Democratic or Republican primary mail-in ballots. But that is only one part of their recent rise in power.

Other gains by unaffiliated voters include increased influence over the 2011 state Reapportionment Commission, which gives them more power in the election of state senators and state representatives. Also unaffiliateds have slowly replaced Democrats and Republicans as the largest bloc of registered voters. And, if state legislative and congressional redistricting reforms are adopted by voters this November, unaffiliated voters will have a constitutionally mandated role in all future state redistricting.

Let’s start with the 2011 state Reapportionment Commission, which drew the boundary lines for state Senate districts and state House of Representatives districts following the 2010 U.S. Census. Previously, either Republicans or Democrats controlled the commission, and the dominant political party gerrymandered the district lines to favor the election of their candidates.

In 2011, however, an unaffiliated voter, Mario Carrera, was appointed to the Reapportionment Commission and held the swing vote between the Republicans and Democrats. Carrera, chairman of the commission, pressed the other commissioners to create more “competitive” state Senate and House districts.

A competitive seat is one in which the two political parties are evenly balanced.

If more legislative seats were competitive, Carrera reasoned, unaffiliated voters would play a meaningful role in which candidate won. Carrera objected to “safe” Democratic or Republican seats, which meant the winning candidate was chosen in a party primary that, at that time, was closed to unaffiliated voters.

Next, look at recent changes in state voter registration. Fourteen years ago, in 2004, the Democrats constituted 30.4 percent of Colorado registered voters. In May, the Democrats were at 31.5 percent.

The Republicans in 2004 were at 37.2 percent, well ahead of the Democrats. By May of this year, the Republican percentage had dropped precipitously to 31 percent.

While the Republicans were going down, unaffiliated voters were shooting upward. From 32.4 percent of registered voters in 2004, unaffiliated voters had moved ahead of both political parties in May with 37.4 percent.

The increased polarization of the two major political parties in Colorado in recent decades has hurt the Republicans more than the Democrats. Republicans’ opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. has caused defections to the unaffiliateds. The Democrats’ big spending on social reform, raising taxes on the rich, etc. does not seem to be antagonizing new registrants as much as the Republicans have.

The Republican Party losing registrants to the unaffiliateds has been very steady over the past 14 years in Colorado and can be expected to continue. Unaffiliateds may soon constitute 40 percent or more of registered voters in this state.

And even more power for unaffiliated voters lies ahead. The state Legislature placed on the November 2018 general election ballot two proposals – one to reform the drawing of district lines for both houses of the state Legislature and the other to reform the drawing of district lines for Colorado’s members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In both proposals, unaffiliated voters are given a major role in drawing district lines. The hope is that the presence of unaffiliateds will prevent one or the other of the major political parties from gerrymandering the districts in their favor.

Back in November of 2016, Colorado citizens voted to give unaffiliateds a vote in political party primary elections, a process that is taking place now. With that in mind, there is reason to expect that this coming November Colorado voters will give unaffiliated voters a major role in drawing state legislative and congressional district lines.

Unaffiliated voters should hold a parade and a rally to celebrate their new and expanding political powers. But they cannot do that. As unaffiliateds, they are by nature political non-joiners. There is no party organization or party machinery. They will just have to feel good individually.

Bob Loevy is a political scientist at Colorado College. He was a member of the 2010 Colorado Reapportionment Commission.

Robert Loevy, Special to Colorado Politics

Robert Loevy, Special to Colorado Politics