By Marcus Chamberland
Unaffiliated voters may have foreshadowed a much-discussed “blue wave” in the November midterm election with their first-time participation in Colorado’s June 26 primary.
Previously, Colorado primaries were open only to voters who registered with either the Democratic or Republican party. In the 2016 election, voters passed Proposition 108, which allowed people unaffiliated with either party to vote in one party’s primary or the other. That opened the door to a significant number of voters, said Norman Provizer, Ph.D., professor of political science at Metropolitan State University of Denver and director of the Golda Meir Center for Political Leadership.
“The largest party in Colorado is no party – unaffiliated voters,” Provizer said, noting that roughly 37 percent of the state’s registered voters are independent.
Nearly 300,000 unaffiliated voters cast ballots in the June 26 election, making up 25 percent of all votes. According to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, of 271,772 unaffiliated voters whose ballots had been counted as of June 29 (the most recent figures available), 170,904 participated in the Democratic primary, while 100,868 voted in the Republican primary.
“The vast majority chose to vote in the Democratic primary,” Provizer said. “I think Democrats can take that as a good sign.”
“I think it’s fairly reflective of what we think is going on in Colorado, which is this blue wave, a movement away from 20, 25 years ago, a fairly red state to a fairly solid blue state,” said Rob Preuhs, associate professor of political science at MSU Denver. “And much of that depends on where (unaffiliated voters) fall.”
It’s unclear whether the participation of unaffiliated voters helped swing any individual races, but they likely had some kind of impact on close races. About 1 percentage point separated the winner and runner-up in the Democratic primary for state attorney general and the Republican primary for state treasurer.
It’s often assumed that unaffiliated voters are more moderate than party members, so the participation of unaffiliated voters may have added votes to more centrist candidates. That could have helped, for instance, Phil Weiser, who won the Democratic nomination for state attorney general over Joe Salazar by fewer than 5,000 votes. But whether Colorado unaffiliated voters decided even that race is uncertain.
“Most unaffiliated voters – 85 to 90 percent – are pretty consistent partisans. They just don’t want to register with a party, one way or the other.” – Rob Preuhs, MSU Denver associate professor of political science
Preuhs said the research shows that unaffiliated voters do have a political orientation.
“Most unaffiliated voters – 85 to 90 percent – are pretty consistent partisans,” he said. “They just don’t want to register with a party, one way or the other.”
And yet, Provizer said, “The turnout in unaffiliated voters was less than Republicans or Democrats,” noting that party identity is a strong motivator to vote in primaries, explaining why fewer independents participated.
There was some concern that unaffiliated voters could be confused about the primary process since they were eligible to vote in either party’s primary – but not both. Ballots were invalidated for those voters who cast votes in both primaries. But Secretary of State Wayne Williams said he was pleased that just 6,914 voters, 2.4 percent, had their ballots nullified for voting in both primaries.
“I am incredibly proud of the efforts by our county clerks and media partners who helped deliver the message to only vote one ballot,” Williams said in a statement on the Secretary of State’s website. “Our office will be working with the clerks to improve the percentage in our next primary election, in 2020.”
While 69.4 percent more unaffiliated voters participated in the Democratic primary than did in the Republican primary statewide, the numbers in Denver are even more striking. Unaffiliated voters who voted for Democratic candidates outnumbered those voting Republican by more than five to one. The heavy participation in the midterm primaries would seem to set up the Democratic Party well for the November election.
“No doubt, 2018 is going to be a referendum on the Trump presidency, even at the state level,” Preuhs said. “I think there’s this natural pull to the polls by those that oppose the president.
“Democrats are fairly energized.”
Provizer was struck by the numbers of women who voted in the primaries, saying that could affect the general election if that circumstance repeats.
“Women participated a lot more in the primary than men,” he said. “That’s another sign if you’re looking at what’s going to happen in November.”
And he noted that participation among voters ages 18-24 was surprisingly light.
“The young vote did not seem overwhelming,” Provizer said. “That is not good for Democrats.”
Preuhs saw reason for optimism for the state and the nation in the healthy turnout June 26 but was somewhat guarded about the predictions of a blue wave. “I think we’ll see at least a blue whitecap,” he said. “There will be lots of frustrated people if there’s not at least a blue trickle.”
While Preuhs saw last month’s turnout as “a good thing for democracy,” he cautioned that upsets such as occurred in the 2016 presidential race could still happen, regardless of seeming momentum on the left.
“I wouldn’t put money on a huge loss for the Democrats,” he said, “but it’s certainly possible that the Republicans hold on to what they have.”
And he reminded voters that the controversies surrounding the Trump presidency and its policy changes from the Obama administration were to be expected, saying, “Elections have real consequences for public policy.”
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