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Asking too much of state's unaffiliated voters

By: Kevin Lundberg
June 10, 2018 Updated: June 10, 2018 at 5:10 am
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On June 26, for the first time in history, Colorado's 1.2 million unaffiliated voters will be able to cast a ballot in a Republican or Democrat primary. In fact, ballots were mailed to all voters, affiliated and unaffiliated alike, on June 4. Those 1.2 million "active unaffiliated voters" are receiving Republican and Democrat ballots, and they can choose one or the other. For the first time, they will have an equal vote with long-time party loyalists in the selection of a party's nominees.

How many of the 1.2 million unaffiliated active voters will actually choose to cast a ballot in the primary election? No one knows, and predictions are risky. But some experienced prognosticators are expecting participation of between 25 percent and 30 percent.

That is far below the 58 percent unaffiliated voter turnout in the 2014 General Election but above the 22 percent turnout in the 2014 June primary.

Again, that is pure speculation. But even a low 20 percent unaffiliated voter turnout would mean over 100,000 new primary voters in the Republican and Democrat contests. That amounts to a huge "wild card" of historic proportions, and needless to add, more than enough to decide winners and losers in any close election.

But the question of how many unaffiliated voters will exercise their new option in the June primary is not necessarily the most interesting question. For example, will their party and candidate choices validate or upend the assumptions (and hopes?) behind Proposition 108, which persuaded 52 percent of 2016 voters to create this new "semiopen primary"?

Proponents told us the change will bring more "moderate" voters into the mix and lead to a more "pragmatic, problem-solving" group of elected officials. Discerning the validity of that assumption may take a few years, not a few days.

Pardon my skepticism, but to me it is more a function of political wizardry than political science when pundits predict a radical change in the character of the winners and losers solely increasing the size of the electorate by 30 percent. There is actually no convicting evidence that as a group, the unaffiliated voters who actually vote are more moderate or more pragmatic in their candidate preferences than voters with party affiliations.

In-depth studies of self-styled "independent" voters do not give much reason to romanticize them.

- A University of Michigan National Survey of the 2008 election showed that only 7 percent of self-identified independent voters were truly independent.

- Also, a recent Pew study discovered that only 14 percent of unaffiliated voters do not lean significantly toward one of the two major parties. Thus, the label of "unaffiliated" does not equate to "Independent."

- It is also true that the unaffiliated voters without a prior party affiliation tend to vote in lower percentages than partisans who have switched to unaffiliated status. That latter group of voters generally retain a keen interest in political matters and vote at higher rates.

Perhaps what we expect from unaffiliated voters is a reflection of our hopes and fears more than anything else. Maybe we secretly, even subconsciously, hope for a tsunami of patriotically motivated voters who will vote for only the "good guys," not the rascals we elected last time. But let's not be too shocked if the 25 percent-35 percent who do turn out in the June 26 primary are not that much different from their Democrat and Republican cousins.

The bottom line? Yes, we might be in for some surprises on the morning of June 27. But one of the surprises may be that there were few real surprises. Confused? That's all right, but if you admit it, then you can't be a professional pundit.

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Kevin Lundberg represents Colorado State Senate District 15 and serves on the Joint Budget Committee.

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