A century ago American humorist Will Rogers observed, it’s not our ignorance that gets us into trouble as much as the things we are so sure of that just are not so. That certainly applies to today’s political pundits– and I mean Republican and Democrat, progressive and conservative.
Take, for example, the conventional wisdom about Colorado’s unaffiliated voters, who are often called “Independents.” Yet, academic research has revealed that over 80% of unaffiliated voters lean Left or Right and vote consistently either Democrat or Republican. Less than 20% of unaffiliated voters approach genuine “independence,” conscientiously voting for who they consider the best candidate regardless of party.
How, exactly, do the 42% of voters who now register as unaffiliated cast their ballots in Colorado? We know from polling that in the most recent elections, they cast ballots for Democrat candidates over Republican candidates by a 60-40 ratio.Veteran political observers say that twenty years ago it was closer to 50-50.
It is puzzling how Republican Party leaders can think this development is a boon to Republican election prospects. The evidence suggests otherwise.
In the June 2020 primary election, by law, over 1.7 million unaffiliated voters received both a Republican and a Democrat primary ballot. A substantial majority of unaffiliated voters who chose to cast a primary ballot chose the Democrat ballot, not the Republican ballot. There is no empirical evidence that in 2020, Republican candidates benefitted more than Democrats from the experience of unaffiliated voters having access to a primary ballot.
The Colorado political establishment’s infatuation with the presumed benefits of the open primary stems from the adoption of Proposition 108 by voters in November of 2016. Curiously, however, the margin of victory for Proposition 108 was only 53% to 47%, compared to the 64% margin of victory of the companion ballot proposal, Proposition 107, the presidential primary. While the presidential primary won majorities in all but 10 of Colorado’s 64 counties, the open primary was rejected in 32 of 64 counties, including Pueblo, Fremont, Montrose and Elbert.
The narrow statewide margin of the enactment of Proposition 108 strongly suggests that Republican Party leaders’ neutrality was a decisive factor in its success. In some strong Republican counties like Weld, Mesa, Teller and Douglas, Prop 108 won by less than one-tenth of one percent, suggesting that if Republican Party leaders had opposed the switch to open primaries, it would have been defeated.
On September 18, at the Republican Party’s State Central Committee meeting, party leaders will have the opportunity to make a belated course correction. Party leaders can decide to get back in step with its membership by repudiating the disastrous open primary system.
The deceptively named “open primary” legislation encourages voters to not declare any party affiliation: an unaffiliated voter can choose to vote in the Democratic primary one year, and then choose the Republican primary in the next election cycle.
It creates greater opportunities for the political operatives to swing primary elections through shrewd marketing to this “unaffiliated” voter pool, legal and otherwise. It also inevitably makes campaigning for public office much more expensive, as the potential number of voters in the primary has more than doubled.
The primary argument for open primaries is that it will result in more moderate candidates from each party. Really? Judging from the increasingly radical left policies coming from the legislature’s Democratic majority since open primaries took effect in 2018, that idea should be highly suspect. Why is the open primary so widely praised by the punditry class when after two election cycles it has produced increasingly radical Democrat majorities?.
But even more important than its partisan tilt, the open primary established by Prop 108 is clearly unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in California Democratic Party v. Jones in 2000 and also a Virginia case, Miller v. Brown, in 2007. It violates Republican Party members’ First Amendment freedoms, and the unworkable “75% opt-out” provision inserted to get around the First Amendment violation is laughable. The Republican Party has foolishly put up with this absurd unconstitutional statute for two complete election cycles, and it is time to call a halt to the costly charade.
The issue of the opt-out provision’s constitutionality is far from an academic matter for most Republicans, and they find the party leadership’s cavalier attitude toward that problem disturbing, insulting and cynical. If the grassroots volunteers who are the backbone of the Republican Party see party leaders in the State Central Committee dismissing the constitutional question as unimportant in the governance and protection of the Party’s integrity, why should they expect any greater reverence for the Constitution from elected Republicans at the State Capitol or in the halls of Congress?
It’s time to correct the mistakes of 2016 and ask federal courts to affirm the Colorado Republican Party’s First Amendment rights. Republican leaders should stop honoring and submitting to the unconstitutional 75% requirement. Any vote on any question at the State Central Committee meeting ought to be decided by a simple majority vote.
Leaders worthy of that title will take that failed 2016 “reform” all the way to the United States Supreme Court if necessary, and bring home a revitalized Colorado Republican Party worthy of the approbation, “the Party of Lincoln.” May it always be so!
Former State Senator Kevin Lundberg, who lives in Larimer County, served in the Colorado legislature for 16 years, from 2003 to 2018.
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