DENVER — It’s their party — for now — but Democrats and Republicans are increasingly coming under pressure to let in independent voters seeking a piece of the primary action.
Take Colorado, where the state’s 1.4 million unaffiliated voters will be able for the first time to participate in the June 26 primary. Not only that, but each independent voter will receive two ballots — one Democrat and one Republican — in the all-mail election.
For Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, the deluge of non-partisan primary voters means traveling the state with an eight-foot, yellow plastic “U” — for “unaffiliated” — as part of the “UChooseCO” campaign to ensure that independents understand they’re allowed to cast one ballot, but not both.
“My chief concern is, will [unaffiliated] voters understand they can only return one of the ballots?” said Mr. Williams, who began Friday on the Western Slope. “It will certainly be in the voting instructions, but not everybody always reads the instructions before doing things.”
Other states may want to take note. Colorado’s Proposition 108, which won with 53 percent of the vote over the objections of the state’s political parties in 2016, came as another sign of the growing influence wielded by the loosely aligned movement seeking to crash the two-party primary system.
Among the leaders is Dan Howle, chairman of the Independent Voters Project in Sacramento, who helped write Proposition 14, California’s top-two, nonpartisan primary initiative passed by voters in 2010 and used for the first time in June 2012.
“Are unaffiliated voters starting to feel they’re being underrepresented, being shut out from elections, and are they looking for ways to be more involved? Yeah,” Dan Howle said. “There really is a growing interest.”
Three months ago, he helped found the National Association of Non-Partisan Reformers, bringing groups like the Centrist Project, No Labels, the Bridge Alliance, FairVote and Open Primaries under one umbrella in the name of “advancing reforms and causes that increase competition, participation, and accountability in our political system.”
Open Primaries spent $250,000 to help pass Colorado’s Proposition 108, while FairVote was the driver behind Maine’s successful 2016 ranked-choice voting initiative, which was suspended last year by the state legislature over concerns about its constitutionality.
“There’s a growing group of political reformers around the country who have taken a look at what’s happening in California and they see the value of a nonpartisan primary,” Mr. Howle said. “We’re combining forces on different variations of political reform. There’s more activity in the last two years than I’ve seen in a very long time.”
Elsewhere, it’s been a tougher slog. In South Dakota, a 2016 proposed constitutional amendment to establish nonpartisan elections lost by 55 to 45 percent, despite $1.1 million from Open Primaries, while a similar measure failed last month to collect enough signatures to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.
John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries, said his group has so far targeted states with the initiative process, given the far more difficult challenge of moving such proposals through the state legislatures.
“The main political parties oppose it,” he said. “You have to be strategic and look at, ‘What’s it really going to take to do this?’”
Certainly nonpartisan voters have the numbers: About 42 percent of voters consider themselves independent, as opposed to 28 percent who identify as Republican and 27 percent as Democrat, according to Gallup’s February 2018 tracking poll.
Most states already allow some sort of unaffiliated primary participation through electoral systems ranging from fully open primaries to allowing parties to decide whether to count independent votes to non-partisan voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In some states, independents can get around the party-only requirement by registering with a party right before the primary and switching back to unaffiliated status afterward, which happens most frequently during presidential election years.
Party in the USA
Be that as it may, parties typically resist efforts to expand nonpartisan primary participation, arguing that as private political organizations they should be able to select their own candidates without interference from non-members.
Foes counter that the partisan primary elections are funded by taxpayers and therefore should be open to all voters.
“The primaries are paid for by the taxpayers. They’re conducted by public agencies,” Mr. Opdycke said. “This notion that hey, we’re like the Boy Scouts or the NRA, we should be left alone and decide who can and can’t vote — great. Go do it. Don’t send us the bill.”
Others point out that the parties perform valuable electoral functions—recruiting candidates, whipping up enthusiasm for elections, registering voters—in keeping with the vision of the Founding Fathers.
“A move to nonpartisan elections would mean a further weakening of a party system that is already too weak in South Dakota,” said Northern State University professor Art Marmorstein in a 2016 op-ed against the South Dakota initiative. “One-party political systems aren’t healthy. No-party systems aren’t much better.”
In Colorado, where the Democrat-controlled state legislature approved an all-mail voting system in 2013, the decision to allow unaffiliated voters presents a unique challenge.
In some states, unaffiliated voters can request either a Democratic or Republican ballot at the polls, but there are no polling places in Colorado, a problem the state will attempt to solve by mailing two ballots to each independent.
Mr. Williams has tried to minimize costs and confusion by asking independents to put in beforehand for either a Democratic or Republican ballot, but so far only about 30,000 have indicated a preference, with 54 percent asking for a Democratic ballot and 40 percent choosing Republican.
What if a voter accidentally returns both? Then the ballots go anonymously before a bipartisan team of judges to check if both were filled out. If only one was voted, no problem, but if both were voted, then the ballots are disqualified.
“It will be more cost effective to the extent voters don’t return both,” said Mr. Williams, a Republican. “We want to make it easy for people to participate in the process. And we want to make it easy for them to ensure their vote is counted and counted the way they want it.”
The decision to flood the election with so many additional ballots has election-integrity watchdogs worried about fraud, but Mr. Williams said all returned ballots are checked to match signatures on file and quickly entered into the statewide database to make sure that a second ballot from the same person won’t be counted.
“Voters get to speak,” he said, “and it’s my job to try to implement their will as best I can.”
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