When Coloradans voted to open our primary elections to independent voters in 2016, they did so on the simple promise that candidates who represented the values of more Coloradans would have a better chance of winning. That promise was delivered in this year’s primaries –– along with three important lessons which point to the future of Colorado’s elections.
Nearly 60% of independents who cast ballots in the June primaries voted in the Republican primary election. This was a stark swing from 2020, when nearly three-quarters of the independents who voted cast ballots in the Democratic primary.
Why was there such a huge swing this year? There was a relative lack of contested primary races on the Democratic ballot compared to the Republican side, where candidates in numerous races represented radically different values. Many independents chose to have their voices heard in the Republican primary, where more was at stake.
And those voices made a huge impact. Up and down the Republican ticket, candidates like Tina Peters, Ron Hanks and Greg Lopez, who spoke to the extreme wings of their party, were rejected by voters in favor of candidates like Pam Anderson, Joe O’Dea and Heidi Ganahl, who represented the values of more Coloradans. People and parties across the nation have noted what happened in Colorado.
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There are three important lessons that emerged from our June primaries:
One, Colorado’s independent voters once again confirmed they are the deciding voice in our elections. While some independents are ideologically aligned with one party or another, there is a significant portion who demonstrate true independence and will strategically vote for candidates who best represent their values regardless of party. These are the voters who tip the balance of Colorado’s elections – candidates and political parties ignore them at their peril.
Two, independents who participate in a party’s primary develop familiarity with the candidates they voted for in the primary. What will be interesting to watch is whether this familiarity translates into loyalty for these candidates in the general election –– especially for a Democratic-leaning independent who voted in the Republican primary, perhaps for the first time. Even more fascinating will be to tease out whether this strategic voting leads to, over time, more cross-ticket voting in general elections.
Three, our open primaries delivered and we should double-down on their power. When Colorado moved from “closed” to “semi-open” primaries in 2016, the state was still left with two separate Republican and Democratic party primary elections. Independents may participate in one, but not both. The change has been a huge step forward for both participation and representation, but when voters choose to participate in one party’s primary, their voices are excluded from the other.
There is a better way. Some states don’t have separate party primaries. Instead, they have one unified nonpartisan primary election in which all candidates and all voters participate. In a unified primary, the voice of a voter isn’t limited to one party’s primary or the other. And the positive effect of having conservative, liberal and moderate voices all represented in an election isn’t limited to one party’s primary or the other. In a unified primary, Colorado’s collective voice would be heard at each stage of our elections.
The impact of fully open primaries on our elections –– and our politics –– would be substantial. Imagine Colorado’s elected officials being able to govern with the interests of all Coloradans put first, without worrying about primary challengers from the extreme and narrow edge of their party.
Each state is its own laboratory of democracy and each handles elections in ways that vary in small, but important, ways. Colorado has been a leader in voter registration, providing eligible registered voters convenient access to ballots and polling places, providing direct democracy through citizen ballot initiatives, banning political gerrymandering and securing our elections.
Democracy is not a spectator sport. These reforms came from the hard work of dedicated citizens. Without them we may well be facing the attacks on our system of government that many states are now battling. But it is not the time to rest. For the good of Colorado, there is more work to be done.
Kent Thiry, of Cherry Hills Village, has led five citizen ballot initiatives in Colorado which reinstated the presidential primary election, opened all primaries to independent voters, banned political gerrymandering, created independent redistricting commissions and repealed the Gallagher Amendment.
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