First year of open primaries in Colorado has unclear implications for local candidates | VailDaily.com

First year of open primaries in Colorado has unclear implications for local candidates

Jack Queen
Summit Daily News

James Wilkins votes on Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 7, in Vail. Four Vail Town Council seats were up for grabs at the polling-place election, as well as a ballot question regarding broadband services in the town. A separate Eagle County mail-in ballot was also issued to Vail voters, along with a third ballot regarding a Vail Recreation District tax increase.

Colorado will elect a new governor in November, and at least a dozen candidates are currently in the running on both the Republican and Democratic sides.

This year, unaffiliated voters have reason to take early notice in the race to replace term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper — and not just because of the dizzying number of candidates. Thanks to an open primaries ballot measure passed in 2016, voters who aren't registered to either major party will able to help choose nominees for the first time in June.

Proponents of the measure argued that opening up primaries to independents could give a boost to more moderate candidates and wrest some control from the hardcore partisans who cast a disproportionate number of primary votes.

In practice, though, the change adds a big unknown to an already wild race, with implications all the way down the ballot and even for the coffers of county governments. The cost of including Summit County's roughly 9,000 independents in primaries this year is expected to come in at roughly $20,000, according to the Summit County Clerk & Recorder's Office.

“What we’re all wondering is to what extent will unaffiliated voters take advantage of this change and participate, and that’s really and truly a wild card. Even when I talk to experts who do this for a living, they say, ‘We don’t really know what’s going to happen.’”Thomas DavidsonSummit County Commissioner

Recommended Stories For You

No real comparisons

"What we're all wondering is to what extent will unaffiliated voters take advantage of this change and participate, and that's really and truly a wild card," said County Commissioner Thomas Davidson, a Democrat. "Even when I talk to experts who do this for a living, they say, 'We don't really know what's going to happen.'"

Comparisons are hard to find. While many states have open primaries, none use mail-in ballots as extensively as Colorado, where voting for party nominees could add only a couple of minutes to a P.O. box trip. The question is whether the unprecedented convenience will matter.

"In other states that have opened up primaries, they have historically seen low participation rates from unaffiliated voters — but those states don't mail out ballots," Davidson said.

Unaffiliated voters are the largest and fastest-growing bloc in Colorado, making up 37 percent of the electorate. In Summit County, around 9,000 of 19,000 total voters are unaffiliated. In Eagle County, recent numbers put unaffiliated voters at 44.1 percent of the 29,302 total voters registered. In early June, they'll all receive primary ballots for the first time.

No double dipping

Those voters will get ballots from both parties, each listing candidates for governor, attorney general and all the way down to small local races. And though they will receive both ballots, those voters will have to pick which to cast — in other words, no double dipping.

If an unaffiliated voter turns in Republican and Democratic primary ballots, both will be nullified, said Summit County Clerk & Recorder Kathy Neel.

That could mean that high-profile races at the top of the ticket could decide which primary independents choose to vote in and, thus, which down-ballot candidates they would also be able to choose.

What that could mean for local candidates is unclear. In theory, though, a big controversy on either the Democratic or Republican side of a race could grab unaffiliated voters' attention and prompt them to cast a disproportionate number of ballots for either party's primary.

"If somebody just cared about the governor's race and only voted for that and didn't vote anything else, it could have an affect on the outcome if there were a lot of people that did that, too, and didn't vote for local candidates," Neel said.

What’s changing with open primaries?

Colorado will have open primaries for the first time this year, thanks to a 2016 ballot initiative allowing unaffiliated voters to help pick party nominees.

What does this mean for unaffiliated voters?

They will receive one primary ballot from each major party in the mail but can only vote in one party’s primary — if both ballots are turned in, neither will count.

When will ballots be sent out?

Eagle County voters will start receiving their ballots in the mail in early June. Primary day is Tuesday, June 26.

What does this mean for Eagle County?

Open primaries might give an advantage to more moderate candidates, but it’s difficult to estimate how many independents will participate in primaries. In other states, they turn out in low numbers, but Colorado’s mail-in ballots make it far easier to vote.

The primary determines who’s on the final ballot, but how are candidates chosen for the primary ballot?

The short answer is a slugfest of party caucuses in community centers and school cafeterias across the state, or a petition process for more deep-pocketed candidates.

During caucuses, voters pick their local delegates to send to state nominating assemblies, which are similar to party conventions for presidential candidates but have far less predictable outcomes.

Unaffiliated voters can’t participate in caucuses but are typically allowed to observe. Local caucuses will be held at at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 6, at various locations around Eagle County. For caucus locations and more information about each of the parties, visit the Eagle County Democratic Party website at wordpress.eagledems.org, or find the Eagle County Republicans at http://www.eaglegop.com.