Election activists have some primary problems with Colorado's system

Colorado's primary was a month ago, and the candidates who triumphed in that round are racing toward the November 4 election. But 35 percent of the active voters in Colorado had no real say because they are unaffiliated. And although a voter can affiliate with a party in order to vote in a party's primary, that's not a fair solution, says Gwen Ballard -- an active and definitely unaffiliated voter.

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Before the primary, Ballard received a mailing from her county clerk, which informed her that she wouldn't be able to vote in the primary unless she affiliated with a party; the envelope included a handy Change In Voter Registration Information form.

"While the 35 percent of us who are 'unaffiliated' are not allowed to vote in the primary, we are required to help pay for it. We are first-class taxpayers, but second-class voters," Ballard says. "In order to exercise my right to participate in the political process, I must give up my right 'not to associate.' In effect, I have to choose between 1st Amendment and 14th Amendment rights."

Ballard became involved with the independent-voter movement last year, starting the Coalition of Independent Voters in Colorado (CIVIC). She has been registered as unaffiliated off-and-on for years. Occasionally she would register for one of the major parties if she was interested in particular candidates in a primary, she says, but she would immediately re-register as an independent after that vote.

Not all states demand that voters align with a party in order to vote in the primaries. Ballard says she prefers the way that California runs its elections: All candidates for a voter-nominated office are put on the ballot, and voters can vote for any one candidate in each contest, regardless of party affiliation. This is what is often referred to as a "top two," "open" or "jungle" primary.

CIVIC is not the only organization that wants to change the way primaries are run. Ryan Ross (a former Westword staff writer) is director of the Coalition for a New Colorado Elections System and supports several proposed ballot initiatives that would completely change how Colorado primaries operate. But an open primary system is not the goal of his group.

Initiative 112, proposed by Ross's group, would amend the Colorado Constitution, turning primary elections into a two-stage system "in which all candidates for federal or state offices who quality for the ballot compete against each other in each stage regardless of their party affiliation or non-affiliation." Every registered voter could vote for any candidate on the ballot.

"The best answer isn't to allow independents to vote in primaries. It's to abolish taxpayer-funded primaries, so that all voters can vote for any candidate on the ballot in their district in each stage of a two-stage election system," Ross says. "Now, that's democracy."

Changing the election system isn't Ross's only idea for creating a better democracy. Initiative 113 addresses the way the state constitution formed voting districts, suggesting that registered voter political affiliation should be a factor in determining the boundaries of legislative districts. Initiative 114 calls for the appointment of a non-partisan secretary of state.

Ross's campaign recently withdrew all three of the initiatives, but he plans to push them again next year, when the campaign has more time to collect the necessary number of signatures.

Support for open primaries is a growing trend, and it's coming from some unlikely places. On July 21, the New York Times printed an opinion piece from New York Senator Charles Schumer, who spoke in favor of open primaries as a way to combat extreme partisan politics. This piece was surprising, Ballard says, because politicians affiliated with a party often feel that open elections threaten their positions.

CIVIC is considering drafting a ballot initiative that would change the current primary system to an open one. "One of my goals is essentially allowing people who choose to not affiliate to participate at every level," Ballard says. "It's about rights."

But initiatives take time and money. So right now, Ballard is working on building up CIVIC's numbers. When the group feels it has the resources to create a ballot initiative, it will consult with independent groups in California and Oregon. An independent voters organization in Oregon was able to put a Top Two elections initiative on that state's ballot this year.

There's one more election initiative that's still in play: Initiative 106: It reads:

Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado Revised Statutes concerning a new method for selecting winners in elections for certain public offices, and, in connection therewith, allowing every voter to vote "yes" or "no" for every candidate on the ballot, and specifying the manner by which the net vote count for every candidate is calculated based on the number of "yes" and "no" votes received?"
Choosing 'Yes' or 'No,' as opposed to selecting one option, is an idea similar to approval voting. According to the Center for Election Research, approval voting takes away the negative effects of split voting. If 106 passes, voters can approve of as many candidates as they like by marking the 'Yes' boxes by the question "Should this candidate hold this elected office?" Voting for all of the candidates would be equal to not voting at all, because it becomes a wash.

The initiative's proponents believe it would not only increase voter participation, but also allow for a more diverse political spectrum. If 106 passes, a yes vote would count as +1, and a no vote would count as -1. The winner of the office would be the candidate with the greatest numerical value after the values are calculated for a net vote count.

Frank Atwood, a proponent of 106, has run for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Libertarian Party candidate. "My ambition and purpose with the voting initiative process is to give minor parties more visibility," he says.

"The idea came from the widespread dissatisfaction with voting results in this country, and what we could do to change the way we vote," adds Althea Gerrard, creator of 106.

The deadline for turning in signatures on all citizen initiatives is Monday, August 4. To get on the ballot, an initiative must have more than 86,000 legitimate signatures. To find out more about all the initiatives -- both the two that have made the ballot and the others in play -- go to the Colorado Secretary of State website.

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