Open Primaries: Chosen by Voters, Attacked by Lawmakers

Created: 31 July, 2017
Updated: 17 October, 2022
3 min read

The election landscape in Colorado recently underwent a significant makeover.

Thanks to two initiatives spearheaded by Let Colorado Vote, a coalition dedicated to expanding voter access to the ballot for all taxpaying Colorado citizens, unaffiliated voters now have the opportunity to participate in all stages of elections.

Since 2008, Colorado has led the nation in the growth of unaffiliated voters who – at 35% of active voters – number more than Democrats or Republicans.

The successful propositions championed by Let Colorado Vote opened primary elections to 1.2 million unaffiliated Colorado voters, allowing them to fully participate in presidential, state, and local elections.

Proposition 107 eliminated Colorado’s caucus and reinstated a presidential primary, as they had used in the past, while opening that presidential primary to unaffiliated voters.

Proposition 108 opened the existing state and local primaries to unaffiliated voters.

Proposition 107 and 108 were passed in November 2016’s election with 64% and 53% of the vote, respectively.

Today, Let Colorado Vote is intricately involved in the implementation of the newly-passed open primary initiatives. Following the voters’ victory at the ballot box, the propositions were signed into law by Governor John Hickenlooper in January.

However, in the subsequent legislative session, Colorado politicians introduced Senate Bill 305 to change the new law, saying that it was difficult to implement in its current form.

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The final bill, which was not shared with Let Colorado Vote or county election experts who run elections, was rushed in the last ten days of the legislative cycle.

Senate Bill 305 contained, among other things, language to ask unaffiliated voters to choose a ballot and to send separate Republican and Democratic ballots to each voter.

Beyond simple technical fixes, these changes would force an independent voter to go through a process that closely resembles traditional party affiliation, just with a new name.

Senate Bill 305 also included a requirement for the counties to canvas the election based on party participation, which means the counties would have to count how many ballots of each party type they receive in an election.

This seemingly innocuous provision enabled the state to provide, and the parties to receive, the primary voter participation data of unaffiliated voters.

Per Jason Bertolacci of Let Colorado Vote:

“The hasty, last-minute introduction of SB 305 didn’t give Colorado general assembly members, county election officials, or anyone concerned about Colorado’s elections time to fully think through the bill’s implications.”

Bertolacci went on to say that it was unprecedented for the proponents of a proposition to not be involved at a fundamental level in discussing the types of changes contained in the bill.

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The changes introduced by SB 305 undermined the will of the voters, so Let Colorado Vote launched a full-fledged campaign against the bill.

Over a weekend the campaign gathered 1,100 signatures and ran digital and TV advertising. Their efforts were successful, and they came to an agreement with lawmakers that any reference to voters having to choose or any process that asked unaffiliated voters their preference for a ballot was removed from the bill, while an amended canvassing requirement stayed.

However, the organization still has concerns that in light of the fact that Colorado has a system in which subscribers can pay to receive voter information, the canvassing may dissuade some unaffiliated voters from participating in the primary.

These voters may not wish to have the primary in which the voter participated disclosed publicly, and therefore may not vote at all.

Colorado has voter confidentiality laws, so if a voter wishes, they can opt to have some of their voting data remain confidential. Let Colorado Vote is still working through whether those laws adequately address their concerns. If they don’t, they’ll work on a way for voters to opt-out of publicly publishing their voting info through rule-making and future legislation.

Let Colorado Vote is a proud member of the coalition of reform organizations behind "Unrig the System," an event aimed at reforming Colorado politics. Find out more by watching the video below or by visiting unrig.it.

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