Do We Have a Caucus?

Four November ballot measures could change Colorado politics, starting in the living room.

To save the caucus or squash it: That will be the question this November.

Every two years since 1912, Democrats and Republicans have gathered in their neighbors' living rooms or in schools and meeting halls across Colorado to set their parties' platforms and choose candidates for the state's primary election.

Participation in these grassroots gatherings was once so high that people fought over who would be appointed to represent their precinct at the county and district assemblies, where candidates for local offices are chosen for the primary ballot. And delegates at the district and county assemblies were eager to go on to the state assembly, where primary candidates for state offices are weeded out.

Former Colorado Democratic Party chairman Phil Perington wants to save the state's caucuses.
James Bludworth
Former Colorado Democratic Party chairman Phil Perington wants to save the state's caucuses.

Over the years, however, attendance at the April caucuses dwindled to what today is just a handful of dedicated voters. Many people don't know when or where their precinct caucuses are held, and stories written about the caucuses usually focus on their poor turnout and not much else. Ask most eighteen-year-olds -- or people twice their age, for that matter -- and they probably can't even tell you what a caucus is.

Over the past decade, the idea of doing away with the caucus system has been bandied about at the state legislature. But since lawmakers never got around to taking action, the Denver-based Bighorn Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan think tank founded by millionaire entrepreneur Rutt Bridges, decided to take the issue directly to the voters. The Open Ballot Access Initiative doesn't actually call for the elimination of the caucus system; rather, it proposes that candidates have access to the primary ballot only by petition. Otherwise, the initiative "keeps the current caucus/assembly structure intact."

Critics get a good chuckle out of that. "That's like going to a baseball game wearing a blindfold: What's the point?" asks former Colorado Democratic Party chairman Phil Perington. He and former Republican state representative Ruth Prendergast are heading up Save the Caucus, a 26-member bipartisan group formed to do exactly what its name suggests. "Caucuses are the last real link people have to the politicians and the political system," Perington adds, "and this initiative closes the door to the political process for the average John and Jane Doe."

That door's already closed, counter the initiative's supporters. "For them to say that this is going to kill the caucus is ridiculous. It's on a respirator right now," says Sheila MacDonald, campaign coordinator for Bighorn Ballot, the think tank's election arm.

"We believe in participatory government, and because there has been so little participation in the caucuses over the last fifteen to twenty years, we decided to do this initiative," adds Peggy Lamm, campaign manager for Bighorn Ballot.

Participation this year was particularly low. The 2000 census and the subsequent addition of the 7th Congressional District forced the redrawing of precinct lines across Colorado; when those new lines took longer to map than anyone had anticipated, the caucuses were held three weeks late. The delay led to confusion about times and locations, and the confusion resulted in even poorer turnout than usual. Fewer than 1 percent of Colorado's 2.8 million registered voters attended caucuses this spring, compared with 1.5 percent in April 2000.

Although Perington agrees that turnout is abysmal, he says that's no reason to squash the caucus. Voter turnout is also down, he points out, but "does that mean we stop holding elections?" He's confident the caucus system could be revived if only the media would pay more attention to it, schools would do a better job of educating students about it and the political parties would do more to promote it.

Caucuses aren't the only way candidates can make the ballot; they can bypass the caucuses altogether and instead gather signatures from registered voters. Changing the system to require all candidates to petition their way onto the ballot would level the playing field, Lamm says.

But Save the Caucus members are also concerned that the initiative would remove one of the checks in the election system, since the measure states that petition signatures will no longer be validated by the Colorado Secretary of State's Office. The Bighorn Center simply wanted to lift the burden off that office, Lamm explains; she's not worried about faulty signatures because opposing candidates always check each other's signatures, anyway.

Nine states, including Arizona, Illinois and New Jersey, require candidates to petition their way onto the primary ballot. The other 41 offer other options, including allowing candidates to pay a fee to get on the ballot, to get on by caucus, or to choose among some combination of fee, caucus and petition.

"We feel it's true grassroots politics to go out and talk to people and gather signatures rather than letting only a small group of insiders decide who gets on the ballot," Lamm explains. "I can understand why they want to hold on to the caucus system. They have a great deal of power, and they don't want to give it up."

That kind of characterization will undermine their efforts, caucus supporters fear. "They're going to show ads of politicians smoking cigars in back rooms. It will be an insult to the process, and it needs to be opposed vigorously," says Save the Caucus member John Wren.

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