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Denver voters cast ballots on Nov. 8, 2018 (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado will vote on Super Tuesday in the Democratic presidential race — but we won’t know which candidate won the most delegates on the day of the primary.

The delay is rooted in how the Colorado Democratic Party will award national delegates and in the state’s mail-ballot system. But it will generate concerns similar to the ones that plagued the Iowa caucus. 

In Colorado, 67 delegates are at stake in the March 3 vote — the state’s first all-mail presidential primary — but it’s not a winner-take-all contest based on the popular vote.

The statewide vote will only determine how 23 delegates are allocated. The remaining 44 delegates — about two-thirds of the total — are decided based on the results in each of the state’s seven congressional districts.

The split process means it’s possible for more than one candidate to claim victory in Colorado based on who wins the popular vote and who wins the most delegates to the national party convention.

The state party won’t begin to allocate delegates until the day after the primary — and, if it’s close, it may take more than a week to know the winner, state Democratic Party leaders told The Colorado Sun.

“It’s better to be deliberate and accurate than fast and wrong,” said party spokesman David Pourshoushtari.

How the party will report Super Tuesday results 

Colorado abandoned the caucus system as the method to pick presidential favorites after a voter referendum in 2016 and moved to a primary vote in 2020. And this year voters unaffiliated with a political party can participate. But, at its core, the selection of nominees for the White House remains an internal party process, much like in Iowa.

To be viable, the candidates must reach 15% support statewide for at-large delegates. The same threshold applies in each of the congressional districts to win delegates at that level. Then the delegates are distributed proportionally based on the popular vote at each level.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s office will tally statewide votes live on Super Tuesday, but it will not offer a delegate count or track totals by congressional district, a spokesman said.

That puts the onus on the state Democratic Party to determine which candidates meet the viability threshold, tally votes at the district level and assign delegates based on those numbers. The process won’t begin on election night, and may take time.

“As the primary election results are posted by the Secretary of State’s office, we’ll begin calculating how many delegates each presidential candidate won,” Pourshoushtari said in a statement. “As soon as the election results … are mathematically complete on who met the threshold, we’ll be able to announce who won how many Colorado delegates in the Super Tuesday presidential primary.”

The party could issue projections on Super Tuesday, as it did in 2016. But leaders are reluctant to do so after the party misreported the delegate projections from the state’s 2016 caucus — a mistake that led Bernie Sanders to pick up one more delegate than his campaign expected and generated an uproar.

Johnny Papagiannis, the deputy organizing director in Colorado for Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign, talks to volunteers Jan. 25, 2020, at the field office on South Broadway in Denver. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The delays in reporting are embedded in the process

The state’s mail-ballot process contributes to the complications. Often it takes hours to count all the ballots, and the results can shift sharply throughout the night. In 2019, the results of a proposition to legalize sports betting in Colorado weren’t known until the day after the vote.

Furthermore, in order to resolve issues with provisional ballots and count military and overseas votes Colorado’s election officials don’t have to report their final totals until nine days after the election — March 12.

If an election is close at the congressional district level, it may take time for the Democratic Party to even determine which candidates meet the 15% viability threshold, officials warned.

Other details about how and when the state party will determine delegate totals for the candidates remain uncertain.

In the party’s rules, the number of delegates up for grabs at the congressional district level varies based on a formula that takes into account how many Democrats voted in the prior two even-year elections.

The top two prizes are the 1st District based in Denver and 2nd District based in Boulder — two Democratic bastions in the state that each will award nine delegates. The other districts will award four to six. All delegate are picked through the caucus system, which remains in place for down-ballot races and will take place March 7.

Another 12 delegates — the top party leaders and top elected officials who were formerly known as superdelegates — are not picked through the primary and they do not get to vote on a first ballot at the national convention.

The delegate math is front of mind for the Democratic presidential candidates, who are crafting strategies to maximize their delegate count. 

Inside Michael Bloomberg’s campaign office on South Broadway in Denver — one of at least eight planned — a big whiteboard says “15% = delegates.”

“We understand how Colorado will award delegates,” said Curtis Hubbard, a Bloomberg campaign spokesman who also helped lead the effort to restore the presidential primary, “and we believe we are positioned well to compete in that process given that we have opened field offices in every congressional district.”

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.