Only one thing stands in the way of open primaries
This year nearly 1.4 million Coloradans voted to open up primary elections to unaffiliated voters, but in 2017 it will be about 1,000 party faithfuls and elected officials who will decide whether to follow along.
Under Proposition 108, the ballot question voters approved in November by a 53-47 margin, primary elections will be open to unaffiliated voters for the first time.
No longer will a voter have to register as a Democrat or a Republican to have a say in who the party puts forth for the general election. Unaffiliated voters are now free agents who can spend time in both dugouts scouting the best candidates and pick a side to bat for on game day.
But there is a single vote standing in the way of that glorious reality for would-be party jumpers.
Because political parties are private membership organizations, they have the ability to opt out of the taxpayer-funded primary election and to instead put their candidates on the general election ballot through a caucus or assembly system.
It would require 75 percent of a party’s central committee to opt out of Proposition 108. Central committees are composed of about 500 party loyalists who are elected officials, party officials, or committee members selected at caucuses in March the year before or at county reorganization meetings coming in 2017.
Never before have these arcane and obscure central committee appointments and meetings mattered so much.
This small drama within the parties is a symptom of a larger crisis afoot as both parties grapple with a core-shaking 2016 caucus and general election that left them trying to understand Donald Trump supporters on one side and Bernie Sanders supporters on the other.
If it all sounds a bit absurd — that party leaders would reject the will of more than 1 million voters and instead rely on those who gather in school cafeterias across the state at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday — that’s because it would be. It’s not impossible, however. Many of those in power at the moment on both sides of the aisle got there by appealing to the base of their party voters who participate in caucuses, not the 1.1 million unaffiliated voters who are now required to be allowed to vote in a primary.
A movement to reject Proposition 108 would be one of selfpreservation for candidates even while being a public-relations nightmare for the parties.
Patrick Davis, who helped run President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said it would be disastrous for the state’s GOP to even consider opting out of Proposition 108.
“There are elements of the Never Trump movement in Colorado that were active during the Republican National Committee that are looking at being leadership in the party,” said Davis, who voted against Proposition 108 but supports the party implementing it now that it’s law.
If that movement is afoot, the question of who leads the Republican Party in February’s reorganization meetings will become crucial.
On the Republican side, two of the candidates mulling a run for state party chair are support open primaries even though they opposed the ballot initiative.
Current GOP Chair Steve House said that “both the Republican and Democratic parties in this state are losing market share … we have to retool how we get voters to join with us.”
Jeff Hays, El Paso County Republican Party Chair, said the party needs to “reach out to those unaffiliated voters in a very strategic way. We really need to build relationships with them through the primaries.”
Organized opposition to open primaries hasn’t materialized yet on the Democrat’s side.
Colorado Democratic Chairman Rick Palacio announced in November he wouldn’t seek reelection. Former state Sen. Morgan Carroll is being called a possible candidate in the race and like Hays and House she has said she opposes Proposition 108.
This debate doesn’t impact Proposition 107, which independently created a presidential preference primary open to unaffiliated voters, but it impacts primary elections for every other candidate in the state.
It’ll be a critical decision for the central committees next year as they decide what to do with the will of the voters and who to elect to navigate these tough times for our major parties.