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From Hickenlooper To House, Colorado Leaders On Ballot Battle For A Presidential Primary

Bente Birkeland
Kent Thiry, the CEO of DaVita, leads the "Let Colorado Vote" campaign

There were controversies over how parties in Colorado nominated their candidates earlier this year. Some voters felt excluded or confused by the process. Now voters have a chance to change the system. In November, a ballot issue asks if the state should switch to a presidential primary instead of a caucus where local party activists select a candidate. Another asks if local primaries should be open to unaffiliated voters. 

What's behind the ballot measures  is a sense that many voters didn't get a chance to participate in the process.

“We saw a lot of dissatisfaction not just in metro Denver area, but around the state,” said Democratic state party chairman Rick Palacio. “People had to travel long distances, wait in long lines. It would be better for Colorado to move towards a presidential primary so that every registered voter received a ballot in the mail not just show up on one random Tuesday.”

The caucus system left out the elderly and people with children, Palacio said.  It can also be confusing, he added.

Palacio and his Republican counterpart lobbied state lawmakers to pass a bill to create a presidential primary, but the legislature failed to buy in. Now, Initiative 140 would create that and something extra -- the chance for unaffiliated voters to participate in deciding which presidential candidates to support before the general election.

Republican state party chairman Steve House does not support that provision because it threatens the idea that the party faithful choose their candidates: “Because what’s the point of having a private membership organization that allows non-members to vote. You’ve basically said, I’ve got a board but anybody who happens to show up off the street that day, they can vote. I don’t like that. I think it’s the wrong idea.”

Yet others, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, back the idea.

“That’s going to certainly encourage many, many more people to get involved in the electoral process,” he said. “More and more people become unaffiliated voters through one frustration or another with the traditional party politics, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look for ways for them to be involved in who actually ends up on the ballot."

Kent Thiry agrees. He is the CEO of the Denver-based kidney care company DaVita. He’s also leading what's been dubbed the "Let Colorado Vote" campaign.

“We now have a world where there are more independents in Colorado than there are Democrats or Republicans and the notion that a small faction of each party picks the finalist, and the rest of the people in the party and all the independents only get to choose between those two extreme candidates, that’s just not healthy democracy," Thiry said.

Campaign finance reports show that supporters have raised roughly $1.5 million. Opponents have raised hardly anything.

Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer is an unaffiliated voter. In the past, he has felt forced to register as a Republican to participate because he lives in a right-leaning district, where the primary vote is the one that counts.  

“In the majority of the districts, whether they’re state legislative districts or congressional districts, the real decision is not made in November, the decision is made on primary day," he said. "If you live in those districts, which is most people in this country and in this state, the best way to have an impact is to vote in the primary election.

Another measure, Initiative 98, is also focused on unaffiliated voters. It would open up the current local, statehouse, and U.S Senate primaries, again, without a person having to pick a party.

“I think all the details have to be worked out and elections are actually a fairly complicated process,” said Secretary of State Wayne Williams.

He is a Republican who supports a presidential primary, but not open primaries. If passed, he said, unaffiliated voters would receive a combined ballot in the mail that would include both the Republican and Democratic ticket. He says it would be confusing and logistically challenging.

“Much of the existing election equipment is old and doesn’t have the capability of tabulating ballots that have both parties, and you can only vote in one and if you vote in both then it’s disqualified,” Williams said. “So it’s a much more complicated programming issue that many of the counties from what we’ve talked to them, don’t have the capability to actually run, so that would then drive up costs.”

Neither proposal would do away with the caucus system entirely. Palacio said that's a good thing: “We want to make sure the caucuses remain intact for the purposes of party building for community building around party issues.”

Still some party loyalists don’t want the caucus to be diminished at all, especially during a presidential election year. Adding a presidential primary is estimated to cost counties and the state $5 million each election cycle.  

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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