Colorado Edition: Unaffiliated Voters
Today on a special episode of Colorado Edition: we've teamed up with 1A Across America for a series exploring election issues leading up to November. Today we look at unaffiliated voters in our state — why they don't want to identify with one party, and how the current two-party system doesn't always allow for healthy political dialogue.
- Terrance Carroll - Colorado state director for Unite America, former Democratic state lawmaker and Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives
- Anand Edward Sokhey - Associate professor of political science, the University of Colorado Boulder
- Randy Fricke - Founder of Western Colorado Independent Voters
These highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What sort of space is actually available for independent voters these days?
Terrance Carroll: In terms of voting for someone who’s independent or third party or unaffiliated, there’s not much space. But in terms of engaging in party primaries, there is a lot of opportunity for unaffiliated voters in Colorado for instance to actually impact who represents them. Colorado is one of the few states that has open primaries. So unaffiliateds can actually vote in whatever primary they choose to vote in. And it gives them a significant opportunity to make sure that their vote is heard, their voice is heard.
You work on policy and strategy in Colorado for Unite America, which seeks to reach across the partisan divide.
There's certainly a lot of partisanship in politics these days. What's the effect of that on voters? We've heard in some cases in can turn people out to vote, in some cases it suppresses the vote — what do you see as that impact?
Carroll: I don’t know if there’s been a significant impact on voter turnout because Colorado consistently is one of the higher states when it comes to voter turnout. But it’s not what it should be. So I’m not saying hurrah hurrah, I am saying relatively speaking, considering the environment we’re in, we’re doing pretty good.
But anecdotally and the polling data shows that this aggressive partisanship, this hyper-partisanship has led to a distrust of government. And that should concern anybody who lives in this state or anywhere in this country, that folks don’t believe in the government. And our government is supposed to be based on this enlightenment principle of the social contract, and if folks don’t trust the government, the social contract is frayed, if not broken.
There’s still the fact that there are a lot of unaffiliated voters, and frankly non-voters in the U.S. What’s one thing that you think needs to happen to better engage these folks in the political process?
To engage them in the process, I believe that they need to truly believe that their voice is heard and their vote is counted.
I think too many people believe that because of the hyper-partisanship that we have, unless they yell really loudly on one end or the other, that it doesn’t matter what they say. So I believe that if we can create structures and systems and reform our democracy so that not the loudest voices control the debate, but the voices that are most impacted control the debate. And those voices that are willing to work across the divide, and are willing to find common ground are the ones who are leading the charge. Because often if we get to the extremes of anything, they’re so dug into where they are that it’s difficult to find common ground.
Anand, you work on the Colorado Political Climate Survey, this is an annual nonpartisan survey that gives us a snapshot of where Colorado is at politically. The most recent of these surveys was completed just before the pandemic began. What can you tell us about where the state of Colorado is at in terms of political affiliation?
Anand Edward Sokhey: We’ve been doing this for several years now, and if we’re thinking about a question like “is Colorado turning blue?” — well, there are certain ways in which I would say that that’s probably the case, and certain ways in which we might want to be a little bit more qualified about that.
When we look at things like voter registration, we tend to see that approaching 40% of Coloradans are now unaffiliated, and that the parties then each make up roughly 30%, with maybe that shaking out as the Democrats having a slight advantage, especially in recent years.
What we’ve noticed though is if you ask people then about, which we do in our survey, we ask a sample of Coloradans, we’ve done this every fall for the past four years, and we’ll be doing it again this fall. And we ask them about their self-identified partisanship, and their self-identified ideology, you get slightly different numbers, right, so what you end up seeing in our sample is that in 2019, over 40% of Coloradans identified as a Democrat, 30% identified as an independent and about 28% identified as Republican.
If you look at ideology, it’s actually even more interesting, because about 35-36% of our sample in 2019 identified as liberal, but 31% identified as moderate, and just about a third, 33% identified as conservative. So if you wanted to say is Colorado blue? You could probably say yes, but it really depends on kind of what we’re looking at and how we’re thinking about things.
We heard from a listener who was reflecting on voting for a third-party candidate and thinking about whether it was a waste. And while we’d like to believe that our votes don’t go to waste, I can understand where he is coming from. Casting a vote for a candidate that exists outside of the Dem-GOP dichotomy only to see either a Democrat or rRepublican elected to office has to feel like pushing a rock up a hill. How do you see it, Randy?
Randy Fricke: I think that, voting for a third-party candidate or an independent candidate, I think that’s a healthy situation, we have to develop and expand that, and part of our movement I’m involved in with independent voters is about changing, we need election reforms so those votes do make a difference.
So that’s what we’re trying to do is election reform where the ballot access is balanced, and voters can vote for whomever without having to belong to a party, so that’s where we’re coming from.
What exactly does it mean to not be affiliated with a political party from a practical point of view? Especially in a state like Colorado where you're allowed to vote in the primary?
Fricke: I think the fact we, that independents got to vote in the primaries now is one step in the right direction. We’re not there where we should be as a truly democratic open elections, so that’s one thing I need to say.
Being independent, you’re probably going to get maybe more emails from both sides, or both political parties. Independents have been looked at by the media as being leaners. We’re trying to get away from that identity, because first of all, they don’t have a choice because the elections are controlled by Democrats and Republicans. So there’s going to be leaners. So we’re trying to get away from that identity and really trying to make a statement on our own and I think that’s where we’re trying to go.
So I think independents are, the movement is getting more progressive, I see that every day, so I think we’re trying to move to where our goal is to get ownership of the elections away from the two major parties, so we can have open non-partisan primaries and top two, top four in elections.
So those are the things that we’re aiming for right now.
Sokhey: I think that that’s a really good point that Randy’s making about the way in which partisan politics are involved in the organization of elections. And I think that a lot of Coloradans and a lot of Americans don’t necessarily think about that aspect of it, the way that parties are actually involved in how we conduct elections, and so that is something that people need to be thinking about.
Anand, what would a U.S. political system without parties look like?
Sokhey: I think that you could see parties change over time, and there are some different things that could make that more or less likely to happen, and we’ve seen the parties change over time in terms of who their main constituencies are, and what the dominant cleavages are in a political period, where they have regional strength and so forth.
When we have a system like we do with single member plurality districts, we’re likely to continue to see two parties emerge, but the parties could change.
Now could we have politics without parties, period? It’s a question that students ask me a lot, and I don’t think so. I think that democratic politics are kind of unthinkable without some form of political parties. Now those parties could change, but ultimately parties serve a lot of functions in terms of connecting people, the mass public to institutions, they serve all these functions in terms of organization, in terms of mobilization. And if you don’t have those, we would have to think, I’m certainly open to the conversation, I want to be really clear, but we’d have to think about what those intermediaries would be that would step into their place.
Remember that parties aren’t mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, they’re nowhere in there. But we can’t, thinking about governance in the United States today, it’s almost unthinkable if you don’t think about parties. It’s amazing, it’s the first thing that comes to mind for many of us.
So I think they would emerge in some way, shape or form, and we want to think about, if we didn’t have those, what we would have?
Next week: We’ll dig into some of the questions Colorado voters will face in November. What questions do you have about the national popular vote or paid family leave?
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