Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce | Denver, CO

Engaging Independent Voters

Issue and Need:
  • Under current election rules, more than 1 million active Colorado voters — those “unaffiliated” with a party — are excluded from taxpayer-financed primary elections. Further, by leaving this group out hyper-partisan candidates are more likely to be the choices at the General Election.
  • Colorado registration:
    • Unaffiliated: 35%
    • Republican: 33%
    • Democrat: 31%
    • Other: 1%
  • Voters are increasingly choosing not to affiliate with a political party, with a record 42 percent of American voters identifying themselves as “independents” in Gallup polling in 2013, the highest mark in the 25 years the question has been asked.
  • The fastest growing affiliation among new voters is “unaffiliated” (sometimes referred to as “independent” voters).
  • Unaffiliated voters make up a plurality of the Colorado electorate, a distinction held by just five other states (Alaska, Arizona, Iowa, Maine and New Hampshire). And, according to a report published in USA Today in December, Colorado leads the nation as far as the percentage-increase of unaffiliated voters since 2008.
  • The unaffiliated-voter block in Colorado has grown from 20 percent of the electorate in 1990 to 35 percent today and there is much to be learned about the dynamic behind this trend. With nearly 50 percent of registered voters in Colorado under age 26 being unaffiliated, the need to reform our primary system in order to engage these voters in the primary process will only grow over time.

Background:

  • The Chamber and its affiliates do not engage in candidate races. There is strong agreement among our members that this is the right approach. That said, there is also great concern about the increasing polarization between the parties being seen on public policy issues.
  • In focus groups we conducted in 2013, our members identified five critical issues they see as necessary to achieve the economic future we envision for Colorado. One of those five issues prioritized by our members was to open primary elections to engage the Colorado’s “middle”--moderate, unaffiliated voter. Business leaders believe this will increase the likelihood that more moderate candidates will receive nominations, which would ultimately result in less political posturing and more problem-solving for Colorado.

Challenges:

  • It is unlikely that either political party will support this issue. In fact, it is possible that one or both parties could mount campaigns in opposition to the effort.
  • While many Coloradans are dissatisfied with the status quo, they lack an understanding about how the current process works or what potential solutions could address this issue. It is likely we will need to conduct an education effort prior to the actual solution being proposed and a campaign being run on it.

Potential solutions and/or principles:

  • Pass legislation in 2016 allowing unaffiliated voters to participate in primary elections. We believe this effort will help:
    • Increase turnout and participation, simply because unaffiliated voters, of which there are more than 1 million in Colorado, would be able to vote in primaries.
    • Incent candidates to appeal to moderate voters, encouraging less partisan candidates and moderating our polarized political environment.
    • Ultimately, the shift towards more moderate candidates would make it easier for elected officials from both parties to collaborate to find non-partisan solutions on tough issues and move us forward.
  • There are many options from which we can choose a solution and we are identifying which of those options will best engage registered unaffiliated voters to participate in primary elections in hopes that it will help to reduce polarization. The two prominent solutions under consideration are:
    • Top-Two Primaries
      This system is in use in three states, and the results are promising. It uses a single ballot that lists all candidates regardless of party. All registered voters are eligible to participate. The top two vote getters in each race, regardless of party, advance to the general election. Top-two primaries increase the likelihood of moderate candidates advancing to the general election, create competition even in strong Republican or strong Democratic districts, and have been upheld as constitutional. It is a significant change from the current system, and its success depends on high unaffiliated voter participation, which means it would require a substantial education and persuasion campaign.
    • Semi-Open Primaries
      This option, currently in use in 11 states, allows unaffiliated voters to participate in a single party’s primary without having to affiliate with a party. Republicans and Democrats would not be permitted to participate in another party’s primary. By including independent voters in a semi-open system, politicians have to appeal to and are held accountable by a broader cross section of the electorate. But courts in some states have ruled it violates the political parties’ private right of association, so any such measure must be carefully designed.
  • Our initial advisory board includes:
    • Kelly Brough, president/CEO, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce; former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown; Mario Carrera, chief revenue officer, Entravision; Cole Finegan, managing partner, Hogan Lovells; John Hereford, partner, Oak Leaf Energy; Attorney General John Suthers; Dan Ritchie, CEO, Denver Center of Performing Arts; and Kent Thiry, CEO, DaVita.
  • To advance this work, we have done the following:
    • Created two nonprofit organizations:
      • Colorado Open Voting, a 501(c)3* (* Formal IRS recognition is pending, but contributions are expected to be tax-deductible.)
      • Let Colorado Vote, a 501(c)4
    • We have pulled together a bipartisan consulting, research and legal team.
    • We are engaging in research and analysis to learn more about voter habits with regard to electoral-reform measures, including unaffiliated-voter habits. We are studying the data collected through similar efforts in other states, as well as conduct additional polling and research in Colorado.
    • We are conducting legal research to evaluate the various primary systems.
    • We are testing messages and voter-education strategies around semi-open and top-two primary systems.
    • We are building a broader statewide, bipartisan organization.

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