Colorado voters deserve better than the current caucus system. Democracy is predicated on a broad level of participation, while caucuses are entirely geared toward emphasizing the clout of a small number of party activists. The result is a process that largely ignores – and is ignored by – most voters.
That was complicated Tuesday by a large turnout that in some places saw hundreds of would-be voters turned away. With that there is renewed interest in finding another way.
This state would do better to return to a primary system that could be adapted to modern mail-in voting. With that it could also be configured to include provisions to allow unaffiliated voters to weigh in, to temporarily affiliate with one of the parties just for that vote, and to not send out ballots in uncontested races. The result could be candidates more representative of the electorate and less beholden to or focused on special interests or extreme partisanship. More to the point, it could also encourage broader participation in choosing the candidates for the general election.
Timing is also an issue. Colorado has a hybrid system, in which the political parties pick their delegates to their national conventions to nominate presidential candidates through the caucus system beginning at the precinct level early in the year, this year on March 1. Candidates for other offices are chosen in a primary election later in the year, this year June 28.
The June date would be too late for a presidential primary. In many years the races for party nominations are effectively over by then and our votes would too often be irrelevant.
State legislators, however, would not want their primary elections held earlier in the year. The Legislature is in session in the winter and our lawmakers would have to abandon their duties to defend against any primary challenge or find themselves at an electoral disadvantage. The same would be true of statewide officeholders who need to be involved, and usually in Denver, when the Legislature is in session.
There is also the matter of cost. Colorado had presidential primary elections from 1992 through 2000. (Before ’92 Colorado rarely saw a presidential candidate until the general election.) The state went to the caucus system after that to reduce expenses.
But there is no reason a presidential primary could not be conducted entirely by mail. The cost is limited by the fact that we only have presidential elections every four years. And in years when there is an incumbent there is typically no contest in the sitting president’s party and thus no reason to mail out ballots to voters registered to the incumbent’s party.
Supporters of the caucus system say it gives poorly funded, grassroots candidates a better chance. Critics counter that it promotes partisanship and as such favors more extreme positions.
More to the point, it just does not work well. Getting everyone together in a school or church to pick convention delegates has a nice, homey ring to it. But when people’s jobs and families are working and living on 21st century schedules, caucusing is impractical and unworkable. And on that point, both parties are coming to agreement.