With the upcoming presidential election in full swing, many states are reevaluating their voting process—Colorado being one of them. Colorado’s’ Primary Participation Act of 2016 has proposed to reenact a primary voting system opposed to the current caucus, but was adjourned May 10th.
However, this bill did not get much media or public attention. Based on a recent poll I conducted at my school only two of 21 students heard about the bill. While this poll is not a representative of all University of Denver (DU) students or Coloradans, it still demonstrates that a number of millennials, many of whom are first time voters, do not understand fully the electoral system. The same poll I conducted showed that 33 percent did not know the difference between a caucus and a primary.
“I did not vote in the primary election,” stated DU freshman Yvonne Mania, “because I did not know how to participate. I don’t even know the difference between a primary and caucus.”
To understand the bill, it is paramount to unravel the various voting mechanisms. The two means of voting are a caucus and primary—the term “primaries” is often used in media as both caucus and primary systems. Caucuses, were the most common electoral process throughout history; however currently only 10 states- Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming and Iowa rely on the caucus system, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Caucus require the meeting of local voters, who are divided by precinct, to attend a multi-hour forum and discussion paid for by the campaign parties (either Republican or Democrat). This voting process does not require one to fill out a piece of paper signifying their vote, but instead relies on the body count as the determining factor. Typically, the room is divided based by presidential candidate. According to FactCheck.org, those voting for candidate A stand on one side of the room while those voting for candidate B stand on the on the other. The results of the caucus are used to determine the amount of delegates for the county, state, and then national nominating conventions of each political party. Due to this extensive process, caucuses can take hours out of one’s weekday. A common issue brought up regarding caucuses is their lack of inclusivity, due to there in-person time commitment.
Seth Masket, an Associate Professor of Political Science at DU whose emphasis is in political parties, campaigns and elections, addressed this issue in an email interview stating, “In many ways, caucuses are a more democratic experience. People actually get to discuss and debate important issues with their neighbors. But the barriers to participating in a caucus are considerable, and many people simply can’t be a part of it.”
Primaries on the other hand are a statewide and state funded process of selecting candidates and delegates. This voting system is closely related the general election process where voters cast secret ballots for their chosen candidate. The results are used to determine the arrangement of delegates at the national convention of each party. 40 out of 50 states have some form of a primary voting system.
“I strongly prefer primaries to caucuses. While the latter has a certain ‘town meeting’ romance to it, they unnecessarily disenfranchise segments of the population without providing a substantial justification for doing so,” said DU Political Science Professor Joshua Wilson over an email interview. “Primaries decrease the barriers to access, allowing for more participation which align more with democratic values that stress broad-based participation.”
“Generally, a caucus is the least representative election,” said Shauna Shames, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, who emphasized race and gender “I think men participate more than women in caucuses, but not by a huge amount. But certainly white people participate more than minorities, that’s simply due to the socioeconomic bias of who can afford to attend.”
Within these two electoral systems there are various types of primary and caucus regulations, depending upon the state. The main four varying election systems are closed, semi-closed, open, and semi-open. Closed, unaffiliated voters must side with a party prior to election day. Semi-closed, registered party members can vote only in their own party’s primary but allows unaffiliated voters to vote by registering with any party on election day. Open primary, a registered voter may vote in any party primary regardless of his own party affiliation. Semi-open, unaffiliated voters can vote with the request of party’s specific ballot without declaring a party affiliation. Caucuses tend to be closed or semi-closed, while primaries tend to be open to semi-open.
Part of the reasoning for having caucuses opposed to primaries is because third parties such as independents cannot decide other parties’ candidates. This seems to be an increasing issue as Colorado has more unaffiliated voters than before even outweighing those registered as Republican or Democrat parties, according to the Denver Post. With this, according to NPR Colorado has over 1 million unaffiliated voters, with millennials comprising the largest amount. Even more problematic is that Colorado has the second fastest growing millennial population. Whether or not this population is able to vote in the primaries is up for debate.“Whether it’s a primary or a caucus, the purpose is the same: the selection of a party’s nominee,” states Masket. “this is really a party decision, so there’s certainly some logic to having the party be responsible for it.”
This party merges into the last issue regarding the switching from the caucus system to a primary, that being funding. Primaries are paid for by the state whereas parties pay for the caucuses.
“A primary would likely cost several million dollars. It’s not a crushing burden in a $33 billion dollar state budget,” Masket said. “If the public pays for it, then people not in that party [unaffiliated voters] have some claim to want to participate, even if it’s not their party.”
According to the Denver Post, Colorado first adopted the caucus system 1912 but then replaced by the presidential primaries system in 1992. The bill was proposed in and backed by Mike Bird, an influential state senator from Colorado Springs. The proposal passed both houses of the state legislature and was adopted by state voters. Later in 2002, the Colorado Candidate Selection Initiative, also known as Initiative 29 took place. This bill would have required the continuation of the primary system in Colorado and would allow running candidates to be placed on the primary election ballot by petition according to BallotPedia. This bill was defeated by approximately 20 percent.
“Other countries often pay for all kinds of things for elections, such as commercials, ads, and travel expenses,” stated Shames. “They [other countries] call this the cost of democracy, which is a concept we [the United States] are missing. We want democracy, but we don’t want to pay for it.”
Colorado has had multiple attempts trying to reenact the primary voting system, most recently is the Primary Participation Act. Along with reenacting the primary voting system the bill would also allow unaffiliated voters to declare a temporary affiliation with a political party to the election judges the day of the presidential primary election according to Colorado Capital Watch.
The bill was introduced to the House and assigned to State, Veterans, & Military Affairs on Apr. 22, 2016. On May 9, the bill passed through the House and was introduced to the Senate. One day later, May 10, the bill was postponed indefinitely according to the Denver Post.This may leave a sour taste in certain Coloradan’s mouth. The poll I conducted showed that 52% of those polled believe that Colorado should reenact the primary system. Voter turnout seems to be a driving force behind this bill as it is thought that primaries offer have a larger turnout. As for now, Colorado will have to wait to find out.
“There’s no doubt that voter turnout would increase [if this bill were to be passed]. The question is by how much,” asked Berry Michael, Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Colorado, Denver. “I did not participate in a presidential caucus this election cycle. I would have voted if this reform had already been in effect.”