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Why isn't Colorado talking about ditching the caucus system altogether?

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Some caucus-goers enjoyed being a part of the democratic process, but plenty of others didn't. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Some caucus-goers enjoyed being a part of the democratic process, but plenty of others didn't.

The message came through loud and clear in Colorado: A lot of people don't like the caucuses and would prefer to choose their presidential nominees through a primary.

Lawmakers, reportedly, are talking about reintroducing a presidential primary, which has been absent in Colorado since 2000, at a potential cost of millions to the state. But what they don't seem to be talking about is simply ditching the caucuses altogether.

Think about it. The Denver Post reports that party leaders are busy drafting legislation to be included in this session of the Colorado Legislature, switching the state to a presidential preference primary. But for other races, the plan would maintain the caucus system — which voters openly criticize as an overcrowded, confusing way to choose political candidates.

Daniel Cole, El Paso County Republican Party executive director, says that strikes him as odd, since the resolutions he received from precincts across the county after the March 1 caucus were generally clearly aimed at getting rid of caucuses, period.

"I guess the state legislators have not yet gotten the message that the people want to eliminate the caucus process entirely," Cole says.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties hold caucuses in Colorado, precinct meetings at which party members select delegates to move on to the assembly process. Candidates try to get their backers elected at caucuses so the candidates will be nominated at the county assembly and placed on the primary ballot (or, in presidential candidates' case, be selected by delegates).

Local, state and congressional candidates can also skip the caucuses and simply petition onto the primary ballot. A nonpresidential primary in June ultimately decides the local and state candidates for the general election ballot.

The notion of ending the caucus system isn't a small one, either from an organizational or financial standpoint. Adding a presidential preference primary — early in the year to have a true impact on the presidential race — would cost an estimated $5 million, according to Colorado Secretary of State spokesperson Lynn Bartels. That's an extra cost on top of the existing June primary, which the state already pays for, and the expensive and complex caucus/assembly process, paid for by the political parties.

To put that in perspective, the caucus/assembly process costs El Paso County Republicans alone around $35,000.

But, says Cole, imagine that Colorado switched to a single primary — the standard system in many other states. The caucuses and assemblies would be gone. All candidates would petition onto the primary ballot. The primary election would take place early in the year and feature candidates for every level of office. It would save money and headaches, he says, while being more inclusive, since voters are more apt to vote in a primary than to participate in a caucus. And, of course, it would allow Colorado to have a meaningful impact on the presidential race.

Like most political ideas, this one isn't new. In 2002, voters gave a decisive thumbs-down to Amendment 29, which would have — you guessed it — discarded the caucus system and forced candidates to petition onto a primary ballot.

The arguments to keep the caucus then were similar to what they are now. County Commissioner and U.S. Senate candidate Darryl Glenn, for instance, is going through the caucus system but says he'll gladly petition onto a ballot if the system changes. Still, he says, he's always participated in caucuses and thinks it's reasonable to expect that people can "get off their butts" and make a meeting every two years.

It's a matter, he says, "of personal responsibility" and comes with the benefits of getting to know your neighbors, discussing issues that are important to you, and maybe even seeing those issues addressed at a national level.

Secretary of State Wayne Williams, another caucus supporter, says caucuses give candidates a chance to stand out even if they're not flush with cash. Petitioning onto the ballot can be an expensive proposition if a candidate hires paid petition gatherers, as is common and often necessary. And without the audience that the caucus and assembly process provides, candidates would need to get their message out through paid advertisements.

"Changing that option would restrict the choices that voters have and I don't think that would be good for Coloradans," Williams says. "A lot of the local races for things like [county] commissioner and sheriff and things like that, they really are individuals who are knocking on people's doors, visiting with them in their living rooms and saying, 'This is why I think I'd be a good candidate.' And you would shift that then to more of a media, direct mail campaign if you didn't have that part of the process."

Williams, however, says he sees a way to appease voters who want a presidential primary without adding the cost of an extra election or ditching the caucuses. He says the caucuses could move to earlier in the year, and a single primary (which would include a presidential primary) could come afterward, maybe in March or April.

"In other words," he says, "you'd keep the same system, you'd just move it earlier and add the president to the race, and that way you get the benefit of the cost savings, but you also get the opportunity for everyone to participate in the presidential primary."

Keeping the caucus and saving money may seem like a good idea — if you want to save the caucus. But not everyone is sure that's a great idea.

El Paso County Democratic Chair Kathleen Ricker has mixed feelings about the issue, because she does see the value of caucuses and hears from party members who enjoy the experience. But she wonders if it really makes sense to have both a caucus and primary. And, she says, there's no doubt that it's difficult to organize a caucus.

Cole says he too understands why people like the caucus, but he thinks the state (plus the county in particular) has outgrown the process. El Paso County, he says, is among the four most populous Republican counties in the nation — and none of the others have a caucus.

The logistics, he says, are challenging. The county has 242 Republican precincts, and some of their caucuses attract more than 100 people. It's tough to find locations to host them.

Even with those crowds, he says caucuses typically attract just 6 or 7 percent of Republicans. (Local Democrats hit record numbers at this year's caucuses with about 10 percent participation.) Many voters are unable to participate — those who have to work, can't find child care or those serving in the military overseas. He says it's been especially difficult to respond to emails he's received from overseas service members who wanted to participate in the caucus. He had to tell them that they can't take part except in person.

"The caucus," he says, "is grassroots, but I certainly don't see how it can be argued that it's more grassroots than a traditional primary. A primary, sometimes, you have 10 times as many people participating."

U.S. Senate candidate Robert Blaha, who is petitioning onto the ballot and has contributed money to his own campaign, thinks the caucus process puts too much power in the hands of a select number of delegates, who might be on the party's fringes.

"The caucus process," he says, "at the end of the day, gets a lot smaller number of people involved."

Blaha says political and elected leaders are making this too hard. One primary, he says, is all Colorado needs — and all the people he's talked to across the state seem to want.

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