This year's March 1 caucuses look as though they will be more chaotic than normal.
As writer Corey Hutchins explained in last week's cover story, local caucuses are neighborhood gatherings for the Republican or Democratic party faithful, where the first steps to select candidates for the ballot are taken. Caucuses are complicated processes, but they start with regular people from the same precinct showing up and being heard — at the correct meeting. And this is where things get interesting.
Last May, the Board of County Commissioners approved a redrawing of precincts for the county. That moved 61,919 local voters to a different precinct than the last election. In order to ensure they show up at the right place, caucus-goers can go to gazette.com/2016-caucus or call the county clerk's office at 575-8683 (the office will be open until 8 p.m. on March 1).
Daniel Cole, El Paso County Republican Party executive director, says the changes could create problems, though he thinks they will be minimal.
"Typically, precincts from the same area meet in the same building, so often even if they walk into a building with the wrong precinct number in mind, they'll still be quickly directed to the right caucus," Cole says.
El Paso County Democratic Party Chair Kathleen Ricker is more worried. She says she too is concerned about caucus-goers getting to the right meetings, but she's also afraid that there may not be leaders for all the precincts, since leaders' precincts may have changed.
"Now we have precincts with no chairs, and we have precincts with two chairs," she says. "It's a mess, and we're dealing with tons of phone calls down there [at the party office]."
Worse, she says, many of the changes are in Colorado House Districts 17 and 18, two of the most competitive districts for Democrats in conservative El Paso County.
The roots of the problem go back to 2013, when the Legislature passed House Bill 1303, the Colorado Voter Access & Modernized Elections Act, with wide support from Democrats. The new law changed a lot of things about elections — most notably, it ensured all registered voters receive a mail ballot. It also changed the way our county counts voters in a precinct, which resulted in some precincts having more than the allowable maximum 2,000 registered voters. That meant the boundaries needed to be redrawn.
El Paso County Clerk and Recorder spokesperson Ryan Parsell says the county knew it would need to change precinct boundaries, but local party leaders didn't want to do it right after the law passed, because that was just before the 2014 caucuses.
The changes eventually were made in spring 2015, but the clerk's office never sent out notices to inform affected voters. Parsell says that's because HB 1303 did not require it, and sending out those notices would have cost an estimated $50,000 to $60,000.
"Since Colorado's become a mail ballot state," Parsell says, "the importance of precincts has been mostly reduced to a party function."
Cole says he's not mad about the lack of notices, though Ricker says she thinks the clerk and recorder's office should have sent them.
"It is still their obligation, I think, to notify voters," she says.
Whatever the case, everyone agrees on one thing: If you're planning to go to a caucus, you need to check your precinct number first.