That biennial ritual of neighbor-to-neighbor democracy, the precinct caucus, is nearly here.
Across Colorado, Republican and Democratic voters will convene at 7 p.m. sharp on Tuesday in schools, churches, community centers and other neighborhood gathering places, marking the parties' first official step toward picking candidates.
This year, Republicans are grappling with what party officials are calling a "hangover" from the party's 2016 caucuses, when the state party decided against holding a presidential preference poll and eventually drew the wrath of then-candidate Donald Trump, who blasted Colorado's system as "rigged" against him when he didn't wind up with any of the state's delegates to the Republican National Convention.
Democrats, for their part, don't anticipate the kind of standing-room-only crowds that led to long lines and chaotic caucuses some places last cycle, when a surprise surge of Bernie Sanders supporters - along with plenty of voters backing Hillary Clinton - overwhelmed some caucus locations. Nonetheless, organizers say that what appears to be unprecedented levels of voter enthusiasm this year should lead to healthy turnout.
Both Republicans and Democrats conduct party business at caucuses, including designating two precinct committee people in each of the state's 1,728 precincts; naming delegates to county, district and state assemblies, which kicks off the process some candidates will take to the June primary ballot; recruiting election judges; considering resolutions that might make their way into the state parties' platforms; and signing up volunteers who will help organize with party organization through the November election.
Calling caucuses "the purest form of grassroots democracy," Denver Democratic Party chair Mike Cerbo made a case for attending in a recent email sent to party members.
"The caucus, which helps prepare for the June primary and, ultimately, the November election, is a great way for voters to put a thumbprint on who makes it to the ballot, engage in new ways to be part of the process and make a difference with just two hours out of a weeknight evening," he said.
Last week, when snow blanketed the metro area, Jefferson County GOP chair Joe Webb cheered the heavy turnout for a caucus training session in the frigid foothills. "We are motivated, friends. The Dems will talk about a 'blue wave' - ignore their hype!" Webb told Republicans in a Facebook post.
On the whole, however, Democrats sounded less conflicted about the caucus process, which has been a feature of Colorado's political landscape for more than 100 years.
"We have the issue of people being confused about the party's role and hostile to the caucus," acknowledged Daniel Cole, communications director for the Colorado Republicans.
"Our caucus was at the center of a national controversy," he said. "Trump focused a lot of attention on it and distilled a lot of people's frustrations with the process. There are a lot of Colorado voters who see the caucus as some sort of nefarious mechanism the party uses to exert influence. Any time we put out messaging about the caucus process, we get feedback from people saying they don't like the caucus."
Serena Woods, deputy campaign manager for Cary Kennedy - the only major Democratic gubernatorial candidate attempting to qualify for the primary ballot through caucuses alone, without petitioning - said she's heard some griping, but not much.
"Particularly people who participate year after year like meeting with their neighbors and talking about things they care about and the candidates they are supporting," Woods said. "There is a lot of excitement this year because there is a lot to decide, but Democrats are feeling really activated by what's going on in Washington and what we're seeing coming out of the Trump administration, feeling that now is not the time to sit back."
Cole said state Republicans are on board with some of the complaints officials hear as caucuses approach. "There are Coloradans who think that the caucus is an optional exercise hosted by the state parties and that the parties use it to assert their own preference in terms of primary candidates," he said. "Neither of those beliefs is true. We're required to put on the caucus by the state - in fact, it's an unfunded mandate - and we don't use it to assert a preference. In fact, this state party administration sympathizes with criticisms of the caucus. We think it can tend to be exclusionary, that the delegates chosen may or may not accurately reflect the preferences of caucuses and Republicans in general."
Cole emphasized that state GOP leadership, including Colorado Republican Party Chairman Jeff Hays - who has made no secret of his disdain for the process - share a perennial concern that the way caucuses are structured, it's impossible for lots of people to participate.
"One of the criticisms of the caucus is it disenfranchises people who can't get off work Tuesday or are stationed overseas, for instance," Cole said. "Lots of changes are possible if there's the will in the legislature to change them."
Both parties are contending with some confusion among voters about new election procedures - as well as the usual confusion about the somewhat arcane rules surrounding caucuses themselves.
A pair of ballot measures approved by state voters two years ago have been generating lots of calls to headquarters and questions on social media, party officials say, but neither will affect caucuses this year. Proposition 107, which establishes a presidential primary in Colorado, doesn't kick in until 2020, and Proposition 108, which allows unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in either the Democratic or Republican primary election, won't change how caucuses are conducted.
For the first time in decades, both major parties have hotly contested primary races up and down the ballot - although, without presidential nominations at stake, interest in the neighborhood meetings should fall short of recent high-water marks that packed caucus sites and left some voters miffed at the pandemonium.
Still, there are packed contests for gubernatorial candidates in both parties, as well as several candidates for state treasurer in both parties and attorney general among Democrats. There are also congressional races in nearly every district in both parties - plus local races for the Legislature and county offices - so there will be plenty of campaigns urging supporters to get to caucuses.
There are some differences between the two parties' caucuses. Democrats, for instance, will ask caucus-goers to vote in a preference poll between the gubernatorial candidates who say they're going through the caucus and assembly process in order to apportion delegates to higher assemblies, while Republicans instead elect delegates without a preference poll, although individual counties - and precincts - are free to conduct a straw poll, a show of hands, usually, in key races.
In addition to Kennedy, the Democrats running for governor and going through caucus are U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, businessman Noel Ginsburg and activist Erik Underwood. (Polis, Johnston and Ginsburg are also petitioning on the ballot.)
Another difference is that Republicans who hope to attend assemblies should bring their checkbooks, because unlike the Democrats, the GOP charges what it calls "badge fees" for delegates and alternates - $70 for delegates to the state assembly this year, for instance, with varied fees for county and other assemblies.
Democrats have seen caucus attendance seesaw wildly in the last decade, hitting high points and a low point during presidential years - around 120,000 Democrats showed up to caucus in 2008 and 2016, although only 12,000 took the trouble in 2012, when there were hardly any contested Democratic races in the entire state - while Republicans tend to turn out for caucuses in more steady numbers, party officials say, although the GOP's results have also varied. GOP turnout has ranged from about 22,000 in 2010 to about 70,000 in 2008. Neither party is predicting record numbers this year, although organizers say the sheer multitude of candidates encouraging voters to show up should boost crowds some places.
County assemblies haven't been finalized everywhere, but they'll take place before the end of March, according to state statute, during the weeks following caucuses. This year, both parties are holding their state assemblies on Saturday, April 14 - the Democrats at the FirstBank Event Center in Broomfield, with the Republicans up the turnpike, at the Coors Event Center on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder.
Westminster Democrat Jessica Sanchez, a Kennedy supporter and self-described "older millennial," laughed as she pondered the process.
"It's opened my eyes to how important it is for people to show up," she said.
Describing a caucus training session she recently held at her home, Sanchez recalled the reaction she got when she walked through the process. "People at the grassroots level - that's what a precinct is - people get to vote by raising their hands. People just kind of looked at me - 'It's 2018, really?' and I have to laugh. It's a very archaic process, and I think we need to do something different in the future. In the meantime, it's kind of what we're stuck with, and it's important to show up and have your voices heard."