DENVER – State lawmakers on Monday began debating legislation that would implement a presidential primary in Colorado.
The House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee advanced the bill 5-4. It now heads to appropriations to address an estimated $5 million cost.
While the legislation has bipartisan sponsorship, it passed the Democratic-controlled committee on a party-line vote.
Sponsors of the legislation introduced the measure after chaotic March 1 caucuses, where many voters expressed frustration. Reports of long lines and confusion swept the state.
The legislation would stop short of creating a full, open primary, but it would allow unaffiliated voters to temporarily choose a party preference in order to participate.
Thirty days after the election, the preference would default back to unaffiliated. There would, however, be a public record of what preference that voter chose for the election.
Under a 2013 law, same-day registration would apply, meaning an unaffiliated voter could show up on the day of the primary, choose a party preference and vote.
Voters affiliated with a party would simply receive a mail ballot for their party’s presidential candidates and vote like a normal general election.
The state last held a presidential primary in 2000; the caucus system was restored before the 2004 election.
“We’re listening to the voters. ... They have not just said ‘we would pretty please like a primary,’ but ‘we really, really want to be part of this process,’” said Rep. Tim Dore, R-Elizabeth, a co-sponsor of the bill.
“I heard discontent from people who couldn’t even get into their caucus, who couldn’t even make their voice heard,” added Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, another sponsor of the legislation.
Those opposed to the bill believe the effort would erode long-standing participation by established party members.
“I’m very concerned that what we are offering is an opportunity to dilute the vote of those members of the party ... because of a beauty contest for various candidates,” said Don Ytterberg, former Colorado Republican Party vice chairman.
Both major state parties in Colorado support the effort to switch to a presidential primary, as does Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican.
The plans would not do away with the state’s caucus system, in which neighbors gather to voice their support or opposition to a candidate as part of a grass-roots nominating process. Those caucuses would take place for down ballot offices, such as legislative races.
Several unanswered questions hang over the legislation, including how to fund it. Lawmakers would have three years to come up with the money.
The date of the proposed primary is also unclear, as the national parties would choose. Observers say Colorado could become one of the early states – perhaps February – to hold a presidential primary, which would add to its national significance.
It’s also unclear how exactly delegates would be awarded based on primary results, another rule established by the national parties.
Another unknown is how a proposed ballot initiative would impact the legislation. The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce hopes to ask voters this November to institute a primary in which all voters would receive a mail ballot without having to choose a preference.
With the bill having been introduced on Friday and a hearing quickly scheduled for Monday, some lawmakers worry the issue is being rushed.
“If this is truly about giving the people a voice, I have to ask, why now?” said Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock. “It doesn’t seem to me that having a late bill drop on Friday, being heard in committee on Monday, with just days left in the session, when we don’t have this election until 2020, is the right time.”
Moreno pointed out, however, “Now (is the time) because folks are angry.”