Editor's note: As part of our continuing election coverage, we're taking a closer look at amendments and propositions that will be on the Colorado ballot in November. Today we examine propositions 107 and 108 by way of an interview with a spokesman for the campaign. Tomorrow we'll highlight a Q&A with a representative of the opposition.
Propositions 107 and 108 are related measures that would make changes in the current caucus system used in Colorado when it comes to presidential campaigns. The first would replace the presidential caucus with a primary and make it open. The second would allow unaffiliated voters to take part in primaries, as opposed to requiring individuals to declare themselves to be either Republicans or Democrats.
Below, Curtis Hubbard, lead consultant for Let Colorado Vote, the organization backing the propositions, outlines why he feels people should support the measures and comments about objections raised by opponents. The transcription is supplemented by images from the Let Colorado Vote Facebook page.
Westword: Why should people vote yes for 107 and 108?
Curtis Hubbard: Fundamentally, because it's about the health of our democracy and participation in our electoral process and fairness to voters who pay for our elections.
With regard to paying for our elections, do you feel that under our current system, people aren't getting their money's worth?
What's important to know is that under the existing system, all taxpayers pay for primary elections. But those elections are closed to one-million-plus voters in Colorado who are unaffiliated. The group of unaffiliated voters is the largest group of voters in the state, and there are some key dynamics in that group, if you look down the road, that are important for us to consider when you think about Colorado's future. Colorado leads the nation in growth of unaffiliated voters since 2008, and almost 50 percent of voters age forty and under across the state are unaffiliated. And in 2014, nearly two-thirds of newly registered voters chose not to affiliate with either major party.
Our view is that we need to encourage participation in the election process rather than closing the door on the largest group of voters in our state, particularly when all voters pay for primary elections.
Do you feel that the current system essentially disenfranchises a large number of voters? And because unaffiliated voters can't participate, and so many of them are under forty, does that potentially skew the results older?
I don't know about the latter part of your question. But the former part, about disenfranchising voters, is absolutely true, and let me take it in two parts. Proposition 107 would restore a presidential primary in Colorado and open that primary to unaffiliated voters. Think back to March 1 and Colorado's caucus debacle. If you were a Democrat, you were confronted with long lines, crowded rooms. In Denver, we had people caucusing in a parking lot at East High School. In Fort Collins, they had people hanging from trees, screaming at caucus participants. Republicans didn't get to have a preference poll at all, and a million Colorado voters didn't get a chance to participate.
When you dig deeper, only 14 percent of active Democrats in the state participated in the caucuses. Only 6 percent of Republicans participated in their caucuses. And 0 percent of unaffiliated voters participated. All total, 5 percent of active voters participated because the caucus system is an antiquated way for participating in the presidential nominating process.
Our view is that a primary, which would take place just like any other election in Colorado — ballots would be mailed out three weeks in advance — is a much better way to increase participation. If you work the night shift, if you're a parent who can't find child care, if you're active-duty military, if you're sick or disabled, you're not limited to that one night per year.
Now on Proposition 108, it gets to the participation rate in our primaries. And even after the switch to all mail-in ballots, we've seen participation in our primaries among Democrats and Republicans drop. We were at 33 percent participation in 2010, and we're at 21 percent participation now. Given that in many races, the primary is where the candidate who will win in November is actually facing the toughest contest, we think it's important to involve unaffiliated voters in those elections. And we've given the parties an opt-out in 108 — that if they want to continue a closed process that doesn't involve unaffiliated voters, they can do so, but not at the expense of taxpayers.
Expand on that if you could. Where would the funding come from if not from taxpayers?
It would be a party function. It would be a vote of their central committee and they would select their candidates for the November general election through that format as opposed to utilizing taxpayer money to fund elections that involve public resources.
You mentioned earlier that you consider the presidential caucus system to be antiquated. Caucus proponents see it instead as a purer form of democracy, where people are able to get involved and be more active. What's your response to that line of thinking?
My criticism of the caucuses is purely as a means to participate in the presidential nominating process. Under our measure, caucuses will still exist for all of the other purposes for which they're used, including selection of candidates and advancing delegates on to assemblies. So they're welcome to continue to caucus, continue to do it that way. I believe that we're all better when voters participate, and we should encourage systems that don't involve one in twenty Colorado voters, and instead encourage something that's closer to the 50 and 60 percent participation we see in the November general election.
Why separate out the presidential process? And were this year's caucuses an inspiration for these measures?
Taking the second question first: Absolutely, March's caucus debacle was inspiring for our cause, and we have Republicans and Democrats who wholeheartedly agree that they never want to experience that again.
The reason it's two measures is that Colorado has a single-subject rule, and it was the view of the title board that these are two separate issues that don't fit under a single ballot title.
Were the individual presidential candidates who came out on top in Colorado this year — Bernie Sanders for the Democrats, Ted Cruz for the Republicans — factors in inspiring the measures as well?
No, not for us. Our thinking has always been about increasing participation and not who won the election.
Opponents of these measures have characterized them as expensive propositions. How much will it cost to go back to a primary?
It will cost between $3 and $5 million every four years to hold a presidential primary. Our conservative estimate is that you would see about ten times that amount in economic activity in the state as a result of candidates and campaigns working to secure political support from Colorado voters across the spectrum, Republicans and Democrats and unaffiliateds. And we feel our democracy is worth it. That is one-4000th of a percent of what the state general fund will be over the next four years. Our view is that to have a say in who holds the highest office in the land is worth that expenditure.
On the state primaries, the primaries held every two years, the cost estimates are around $750,000, and that would largely be the result of mailing ballots to unaffiliated voters. And our view is that those voters are already paying for the election, and that they should be included in those elections, and when Colorado voters approve both of these measures, they will have spoken that they value participation in the process, and that they think these are expenditures that are well worth the taxpayers' investment.
The economic impact that you mentioned — would that go beyond television advertising for candidates?
You would see it in printing costs, mailing costs, hotel rentals, banquet and convention-facility rentals, advertising production, stagehands — all of the things that go along with campaign infrastructure. You see when campaigns come here in October and November of every election year, what goes along with that when you're hosting not just the candidates and their infrastructure, but the press and the infrastructure that's needed to serve them as well.
Do you think a primary system would inspire more visits from presidential candidates? And if so, why would that be a positive?
I think it could, and there's a key component to what we've done with Proposition 108 to do just that. And that is to make Colorado's system a winner-take-all system for delegates. The reason we did that is to make Colorado attractive to campaigns and candidates. If you look back to March 15th of this year, Florida was holding its primary, Ohio was holding its primary, Illinois, North Carolina — all states much larger than Colorado. If we would be competing against them, it would be unlikely that we would draw candidates' attention if we were doing a proportional-delegates share. So that was the thinking behind making it winner-takes-all.
There are some other mechanisms out there that may change that thinking down the road. We heard testimony last year in the legislature from Republicans and Democrats that if Colorado restores a primary, there was the possibility we might replace Nevada as the first in the West primary — and we would then certainly draw attention from candidates. So that's out there as a possibility, as well, according to the parties.
What's your flexibility when it comes to changing the language? Can you switch from a winner-takes-all format if Colorado's primary date moves up?
Yes, and that's a key component of what we're doing here. These are both statutory initiatives, which means they're not enshrined in the constitution. We don't pretend to have a crystal ball and know what's going to happen in four years or eight years or twelve years. So if lawmakers by majority vote decide that they didn't like winner-take-all, that it wasn't necessary because Colorado became the first in the West primary, that's certainly something within their right to do. They would obviously have to be respectful of the vote of the people that established a presidential primary under these terms. But we certainly understand that we can't anticipate everything and that lawmakers will certainly be able to revisit this over time.
One of the things often mentioned in states where unaffiliated voters can participate in primaries is the concept of, for want of a better term, shenanigans — people tilting the election one way or the other by voting for a weaker candidate to help the candidate they actually support. Is there any way to deal with that possibility? Or is that even a concern of your campaign?
Fundamentally, that is just untrue. We have looked for data points to back up that claim, and they're not out there. And if you buy that argument, keep in mind that Colorado's existing system would allow similar activities, because you can affiliate up to and including election day, and even affiliated voters can change parties prior to the election.
We believe that kind of thing is just not possible. In fact, by increasing the pool of voters, you would make it more difficult for anyone to actually have an impact on the election, because there's a larger pool of the electorate participating.
Do you feel concerns about that are somewhere between misinformation and an urban myth?
Yes, absolutely. What's more appalling, or should be more appalling, is the ease with which insiders can manipulate the current process through a system like caucuses, in which only 5 percent of the electorate participates.
What are some of the other concerns about the propositions voiced by opponents?
One of the things we've heard is about the so-called spoilage rate, and about a similar process that exists in Washington. This was sprung on us by partisans at the last minute at a Blue Book hearing, and when we actually had the time to research the data in Washington state and get it fact-checked with the Washington Secretary of State's Office, the percentage of ballots that could be invalidated under our system is less than 1 percent. It's .51 percent. And the partisans who are looking at ways to undermine our proposals first sought to insert the number 9 percent into the Blue Book, and ultimately inserted the figure 7 percent. And both of those are incorrect. Fundamentally, the argument should not be about which digit is correct or the percentage of ballots that might be spoiled. Our focus should be on the million-plus Colorado voters currently locked out of the system who would be allowed to participate in the system under our changes.
The term "spoilage rate" isn't familiar to most people. How could such spoilage take place?
Under our measure, unaffiliated voters will be mailed a ballot that includes both the Republican Party candidates and the Democratic Party candidates, and there will be instructions that they can vote in one party's primary but not both — and that if they vote in both party's primaries, their ballot may be invalidated. In Washington state, in their presidential primary this year, they required people to check a box: Are they a Republican, Democrat or unaffiliated voter? We don't require that in ours. A lot of the spoilage in Washington was because people didn't check that box.
The next thing people did in Washington state was, some of them looked at it and said, "I'm going to vote in the Democratic primary and the Republican primary." That spoiled their ballots — and that is a possibility in our system, but it's only a possibility for unaffiliated voters, because only the unaffiliated voter would be getting that choice. In Washington, all voters got that type of ballot, so there was a higher error rate.
We think voters are smart and voters figure these things out. We already ask them to use a blue or a black pen, to avoid writing on their ballot, to fill in the bubble as opposed to using an X, to return the ballot to its privacy sleeve, to sign the back of the envelope, to return it by 7 p.m. on a Tuesday to a drop-off location within their county. Those are all just as complicated as reading instructions that say, "If you vote in both party's primaries, your vote won't be counted." And we think Colorado voters will figure that out.
I want to add that we've had incredible support across the state, urban and rural areas. With the endorsement of Governor Hickenlooper, the current governor and all the living former governors have endorsed. We've had the Boulder Daily Camera's endorsement, the Colorado Springs Gazette's endorsement. Grand Junction, Fort Collins, Durango, the Denver Post. This is a nonpartisan issue. This is about giving voters the ability to participate in our system without forcing them to declare themselves to be something they're not by affiliating — and giving us better candidates in the end.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.