More Colorado Candidates Are Petitioning For Ballot Spots. So Why Caucus?

Feb 15, 2018

Colorado’s precinct caucuses on March 6 may not pack quite the punch as in past years.

With many candidates in contested races choosing to petition onto the primary ballot, caucus goers will see fewer choices in the county, legislative, congressional and assembly processes.

That shift has leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties questioning the role of what are basically neighborhood get togethers in the nominations process.

Colorado’s caucuses have been around since the early 1900s. It’s a relatively rare way to start the primary election nominating process.

“There’s a small number of states, like Texas for instance, that do some sort of caucus primary mix,” according to Kerri Milita, a political scientist at Illinois State who studies elections.

And even in a state where they hold caucuses, they aren’t necessarily popular.

Barb Niebauer hands out a precinct sign to be posted later this month.
Credit Sandra Fish for KUNC

“I’m not a huge fan, to be honest with you,” said Jeff Hays, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. “It’s a system that survives with low participation. If we ever had 25 percent show up at our caucuses we wouldn’t have the facilities to house them. ...  It succeeds because we have generally less than 10 percent of the people who show up.”

Still, he says the caucuses play a key role in getting the election year started.

“It does allow candidates who are not deeply funded to have (a) chance, and I like that aspect of it,” Hays said. “It is a recruiting ground for activists. But it’s not like it’s some kind of religious faith.”

Democratic Chairwoman Morgan Carroll agrees the system isn’t perfect. Two years ago, people were turned away at some Democratic presidential caucuses because of overwhelming interest. In 2020, Colorado will return to a primary for presidential candidates.

“There are some downsides to caucusing, and it’s part of why I think it was eliminated at the presidential level,” Carroll said. “It can be slow, it can be a little bit time-consuming. It can be hard for people with disabilities or seniors, or if you have young kids at home.”

And this year, many candidates in some of the most competitive contests – including for governor – are petitioning their way onto the ballot instead of going the caucus route.

One reason for that, says Republican consultant Dick Wadhams, is because it’s tougher for a moderate candidate to get nominated by the grassroots in either major party.

“The caucus-assembly process is now dominated by the far-ends of the political parties,” Wadhams said. “For the Democrats, it’s for liberals and the left wing of the Democratic Party. For Republicans, it’s conservatives and the right wing of the Republican Party.”

A post illustrates the nominating process and party structure at a recent Weld County Democratic Party meeting.
Credit Sandra Fish for KUNC

Statewide candidates pursuing the petition route must collect 1,500 signatures in each of the state’s seven congressional districts. Gathering enough signatures can cost in the neighborhood of $250,000, Wadhams said.

Some candidates, like Polis, say they may both petition and seek support from caucuses.

Incumbent GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn in El Paso County’s 5th Congressional District barely made the ballot after an assembly challenge two years ago. This year, he is petitioning, though a spokesman said Lamborn may also seek caucus support.

Wadhams said such candidates may be employing a strategy aimed at other candidates.

“It strikes me that Congressman Jared Polis, who has professed that he’s going to go through both the petitioning process and the convention process, that he’s trying to limit the number of people who get on the ballot,” he said.

Democrats will conduct a preference poll for the governor’s race at their caucuses, offering an early hint at a front-runner. But the GOP isn’t planning one for theirs.

“We don’t have process controls over that,” said GOP chairman Hays. “It’s just not reliable.”

Democrats likely will examine the caucus process in 2019, perhaps recommending changes, said party chairwoman Carroll.

“I think we’re actually looking at — I guess I’ll call it a commission — to explore alternatives,” she said. “We have some people interested in rethinking this basic question of is this the best process. I really don’t know what will come out of it.”

More than 100 people attended a Weld County caucus training session in early February.
Credit Sandra Fish for KUNC

Still, Hays and Carroll say caucuses fill an important role for political parties.

“I wouldn’t want to eliminate them entirely and just jump to the primary, without really thinking about is there a better way to caucus,” Carroll said. “I say that because caucus is where we elect precinct leaders … the most important position in the party, in the state and in the country."

Precinct leaders must post signs at caucus locations by Feb. 22. You can find out where your caucus is being held by looking at the state or county website of your political party.