Colorado Politicos Split Over Effort for Nonpartisan Primary Elections | Westword

Colorado Politicos Split Over Proposal for Nonpartisan Primary Elections

A Denver man's new book backs a proposal to make Colorado's primary elections nonpartisan. Party leaders aren't too happy about the idea.
A Denver-based political group wants all candidates regardless of party affiliation to run on a single primary ballot.
A Denver-based political group wants all candidates regardless of party affiliation to run on a single primary ballot. hermosawave/iStock
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Today's political atmosphere is defined by partisan polarization, both in Colorado and the United States at large. Nick Troiano thinks he has a solution.

In his book The Primary Solution, released on February 27, Troiano calls party primary elections the "largest factor fueling our broken politics." This system, he argues, creates politicians who are more ideologically extreme than the people they represent, requiring candidates to appeal only to their partisan base to win the primary instead of to the general population. Then, in districts that heavily favor one party, these extreme candidates sail to victory in the general election.

"Partisan primaries are the biggest solvable problem in our politics today," says Troiano, executive director of the political advocacy group Unite America. "It's easy to be cynical or even helpless in the face of growing political division and dysfunction. But the book highlights how there's actually something we can do about it."

Instead of partisan primaries, Troiano advocates for open primaries — a change Coloradans may soon get to weigh in on. A proposed measure for the November election would ask voters to implement an open primary system, where all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run on a single ballot, and the top four vote-getters advance to the general election.

Party leaders on both sides of the aisle aren't thrilled about the initiative, however.

Dave Williams, chair of the Colorado Republican Party, questions the motives of the man behind the ballot measure proposal: Kent Thiry. Co-chair of Troiano's Denver-based organization, Unite America, Thiry is also the former CEO of the controversial dialysis provider DaVita. He's poured millions of dollars into efforts to overhaul Colorado's electoral system in recent years.

"It's clear Thiry wants to be elected someday but knows he can never win a nomination from either party, so to validate his ego, Thiry is spending his massive wealth to change the rules of the game so he can have a better chance at winning," Williams says, adding that people "shouldn’t be able to buy their way onto a ballot and manipulate democracy with deceptive marketing."

Right now, political candidates caucus or petition their way onto the Democratic or Republican primary ballots. Then Coloradans vote in their respective party's primary race. As of 2018, unaffiliated voters have been able to choose which primary they want to participate in, but they cannot vote in both.

Under the proposed measure, all candidates would run on a single ballot, though party affiliations would still be listed by their names, Troiano says. Whichever four candidates get the most votes would go on to the general election.

Thiry is also trying to get several other proposals onto the ballot this year, including efforts to make the general election ranked-choice and to require signature collections for making the ballot instead of caucusing.

Although Williams describes Thiry as a "self-serving rich liberal," Democratic Party chair Shad Murib says he thinks the nonpartisan primary proposal is designed to help bolster Republican candidates.

"A lot of Republicans and conservative-leaning folks know their agenda is out of step with Coloradans and think hiding their party affiliation is possibly a pathway to electoral success," Murib says, arguing that candidates with Republican agendas would run as unaffiliated on the nonpartisan primary ballot to mislead Colorado's largely unaffiliated but left-leaning voters.

"They have such a damaged brand that I think it's almost unsalvagable," he adds.

Thiry has spent most of the last two decades as an Independent, though he briefly registered as a Republican in 2017 while considering a run for governor of Colorado. But in 2020, Unite America spent hundreds of thousands of dollars backing candidates in Republican state legislative primaries who were considered less conservative, to the displeasure of Williams.

Unite America describes itself as a nonpartisan group aiming to foster a more representative government. Troiano says nonpartisan elections would help achieve this goal by incentivizing politicians from both parties to move closer to the ideological center.
click to enlarge The cover of the book "The Primary Solution," written by Nick Troiano.
The cover of The Primary Solution, released on Tuesday, February 27.
Hannah Metzger
"Ultimately, I think this system would foster two healthier parties, because they would actually have to compete for the majority of voters and not just be beholden to their base," Troiano says. "The parties in power tend to be reflexively opposed to anything new that would create uncertainty."

California, Nebraska, Washington, Alaska and Louisiana all run nonpartisan primaries for state or federal elections. Most of the states advance the top two vote-getters to the general election, but Alaska utilizes the top-four method that is being proposed for Colorado.

The jury is still out on the impact of these primary systems, however. Different studies have reached conflicting conclusions on whether nonpartisan primaries result in more moderate candidates, NPR reported, and experts say the effect on voter engagement and satisfaction is similarly mixed.

While nonpartisan primaries could make general elections more competitive in districts that heavily favor one political party, they could also result in voters dropping off when no candidates from their party make the top four. Under this system, it's possible to end up in a general election where all of the candidates are from the same party. Colorado's current system guarantees at least two different options. 

"That's not good for Democracy. I think most voters agree they'd like to have two real choices," Murib says. "I don't think the proponents of the measure fully understand what they're doing and how this could negatively impact what everyone agrees is a gold-standard election system in Colorado."

Troiano, a 34-year-old Denver resident originally from Pennsylvania, says he realized the U.S.'s political system was "broken" when Congress struggled to resolve the debt-ceiling issue in 2014 while Troiano was leading the now-defunct national anti-debt group The Can Kicks Back. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress as an Independent later that year, challenging incumbent Republican Tom Marino, who was "emblematic" of extremism and partisanship, he says.

He started writing The Primary Solution eighteen months ago, in hopes it would serve as a resource to inform voters this election.

"People should read this book if they're upset and disillusioned by our current system," Troianosays."We have an opportunity in 2024 for Colorado to be a leader in the country in demonstrating a pathway out of the bitter partisanship and division we currently find ourselves in."

The proposed ballot measure for implementing nonpartisan primaries is scheduled for a hearing on March 6. If approved for circulation, supporters will need to collect roughly 125,000 signatures to make the November 5 ballot. 
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