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Colorado ballots going out Monday in the first 'open' primary; it's a 'blow-out hootenanny'

June 3, 2018 Updated: June 4, 2018 at 8:51 am
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In this 2014 Gazette file photo, Julie Christopher drops off her primary election ballot at a 24 hour ballot drop box outside the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder's Office. (Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette)

Starting this week, Colorado's unaffiliated voters will begin casting ballots in the state's primary election for the first time ever.

Also for the first time, Colorado voters in both parties are faced with contested primaries for an open seat for governor. There are also crowded races for state treasurer in both parties and for attorney general among the Democrats, as well as what's shaping up to be primaries in nearly every one of the state's seven congressional districts and a smattering of heated contests in legislative and other races.

Coincidence?

Experts say no. Most primary voters will be facing more choices than ever this year thanks to the change in voting rules.

"We're in new territory. This is the first time the Democrats have had a complete blow-out hootenanny in a long, long while," says pollster Floyd Ciruli, alluding to all the contested races in the Democratic primary for governor. "The Republicans are apoplectic too. This is a heavy-duty election. Everyone's going to be working the unaffiliateds," says Ciruli, who's been keeping tabs on the opinion of Colorado voters for decades.

Colorado is actually the first state in the country with all-mail ballots to hold an open or, more accurately, a semi-open primary (the distinction being that an open primary allows anyone to vote in any primary, as opposed to just unaffiliated voters being able to participate), which could skew turnout predictions.

As far as the mechanics go, the first ballots will be mailed Monday, and Republicans will get a Republican primary ballot in the mail, and Democrats will get a Democratic primary ballot, but most unaffiliated voters will get one of each and have the opportunity to pick which one to fill out and return by the June 26 deadline.

County clerks will be mailing out roughly 50 percent more ballots than in previous primaries.

Several weeks ago, Secretary of State Wayne Williams kicked off an education campaign to encourage Colorado's 1.4 million unaffiliated voters to go on-line and request either a Democratic or Republican primary ballot by early May, potentially saving county governments plenty in postage and avoiding confusion in the next couple weeks.

But the time to declare ended last Tuesday, May 29. Unaffiliated voters who didn't declare a preference by the cutoff date will receive both major parties' primary ballots in the mail this week but can only return one of them - if they return them both, they'll both be thrown out.

Primary election ballots have to be in the hands of county clerks by 7 p.m. on Election Day, June 26. If you're mailing your ballot, it should be in the post box by June 18, but ballots can be dropped at election boxes around the county on Election Day. Coloradans have the option of voting in person, too, at any of the Voter Service and Polling Centers in El Paso County.

Just Vote Colorado (www.justvotecolorado.org) has a handy tool that tells you where the closest dropoff ballot box or voting center is by just plugging in your address.

As of last week, 56.1 percent of unaffiliated voters requested Democratic ballots and 37.7 percent asked for a Republican one.

Although younger unaffiliated voters say they plan to vote at higher rates than their older counterparts, older voters tend to return their mail ballots more often, potentially muddying that distinction.

Both major parties have crowded, competitive primaries up and down their ballots for the first time in decades. A complete voter's guide will appear in next Sunday's Gazette and Friday's edition of Colorado Politics. Both publications will feature on-line voter's guide starting this Friday.

At the end of January, Colorado counted 3,219,953 active, registered voters - 1,163,751 of them unaffiliated, 1,003,424 Democrats and 995,090 Republicans, with the remainder belonging to minor parties. The ranks of unaffiliated voters have been growing at a significantly faster clip than either major parties' for some time.

While there are clear demographic and geographic differences between the two major parties as a whole - Republicans tend to be older, whiter, more likely to be male and less likely to live in urban cores, with Democrats tending the other direction - it's harder to characterize unaffiliated voters in Colorado, according to voter registration and polling data.

Pundits, pollsters and political consultants say common perceptions about unaffiliated voters tend to be mistaken - and that those voters' participation in the election could influence the results in ways different than anticipated.

"It's the political gold rush of 2018," says Josh Penry, a principle with EIS Solutions and a former Republican Senate leader from Mesa County. "There's gold in those hills."

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