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Voters cast their ballots in downtown Denver on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Four years ago, after the Colorado caucuses shut out millions from voting in the presidential primaries, a coalition of political centrists put forward a new idea: Let the more than 1 million unaffiliated voters help pick the party nominees for the White House and make it a primary to boost turnout within the Democratic and Republican ranks.

The two major political parties objected. The state’s top lawmakers even rewrote the official voter guide to make it less appealing and deleted a line saying it would increase voter turnout. It didn’t matter. Proposition 107 won voter approval by a wide margin in 2016.

On Tuesday, Colorado held a presidential primary for the first time in two decades, and the inaugural one with mail ballots and unaffiliated voters. In the end, it increased voter turnout — a lot.

MORE: Bernie Sanders wins Colorado’s Democratic presidential primary, but late ballot surge may tighten race

The preliminary election results show that nearly 1.8 million people — or 46% — voted in Colorado. It represents a nearly 15-fold increase from 2016, when an estimated 122,000 Democrats attended caucuses and Republicans canceled their presidential vote.

The supporters behind the “Let Colorado Vote” initiative celebrated this week as a late-surge in ballots boosted turnout to historic levels. “I’m just very excited to see that we created a mandatory vehicle that allows all voters in Colorado to have more of a voice, I just think that’s a great thing in Colorado,” former DaVita CEO Kent Thiry, the measure’s leading supporter, said in an interview after polls closed.

But the primary also exposed an inconvenient reality: The full promise of Proposition 107 remains unfulfilled.

MORE: Colorado Democratic primary delegate count: A look at who won the state’s 67 delegates

So far, moderate candidates are not winning

The advocates for the 2016 ballot initiative made the case to voters that the party caucuses favored party loyalists and only amplified candidates at the edges of either party. And a semi-open primary that allowed the state’s unaffiliated voters to participate would lead to more moderate nominees.

It didn’t happen. Bernie Sanders won the state’s Democratic presidential caucus in 2016 and the primary on Tuesday, both in convincing fashion. Likewise, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2018 — the first statewide contest with unaffiliated voters — went to Gov. Jared Polis, the candidate who outlined the most liberal agenda in the field.

Thousands of people still didn’t get their votes counted

The main argument for the new system — that it would enfranchise all voters — didn’t fully materialize either. An estimated 150,000 or more votes were not even counted because two top Democratic contenders withdrew their candidacy weeks after voting started. And now lawmakers and the governor are discussing changes to assure voters aren’t disenfranchised.

Some unaffiliated voters didn’t participate because it’s not a true secret ballot — which party primary they voted in is public information.

The political parties still hold the reins

Moreover, the method Republicans and Democrats created to award the state’s national delegates from the primary vote reveals that the process for picking a nominee is still firmly an internal party affair. (In fact, the party’s leadership can vote to cancel the primary if they wish.)

The Republican Party set a bar of 20% support for any candidate to qualify for delegates, a significant margin that none of the little-known rivals to President Donald Trump met. And the Democratic Party awarded only one-third of their delegates to the statewide popular vote — reserving the majority for apportionment based on a formula that favors Democratic strongholds.

Mike Chiropolos, a 56-year-old registered Democratic voter from Boulder, questioned how the party allocated delegates. “We should honor one-person, one-vote for presidential primaries,” he said in an interview. “Transparency and a logical system is good for democracy. Everybody wants their vote to matter, and nobody likes to think their vote counts less.”

MORE: How Colorado will award Democratic delegates from the Super Tuesday primary, explained

In addition, the Democratic delegates selected by party activists are able to switch allegiances and go against the will of Colorado voters at the national convention.

The ballot measure and the implementation law gave the party this freedom, acknowledging that they are private organizations and free to operate under their own rules as part of a compromise with critics.

For supporters, the 2020 primary represents progress

The supporters are the first to acknowledge that their vision for a more voter-centric process remains a work in progress.

“These things do take time to fully emerge,” Thiry told The Sun. “But I think it’s already making a difference, and that difference will continue to grow.”

The strong showing by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former registered independent, suggested a step toward moderation in the minds of supporters. Sanders finished first with 36% and centrist Joe Biden, the former vice president, took 24%. Bloomberg finished third at 21%.

MORE: The 6 numbers that tell the story of Colorado’s Democratic presidential primary

“That’s just one election,” Thiry said. “And the portion of the electorate that is supporting Bernie Sanders is in part a function of the uniqueness of the current situation in our country and the campaign so far. 

“But I’m very comfortable that the combination of open primaries and gerrymandering reform will make a profound difference in the political representation of the political middle,” he said.

The surge in turnout is significant, proponents reiterated. The total included an estimated 590,000 unaffiliated voters, according to Constellation, a Republican data firm, and about 70% voted in the Democratic primary.

Dozens of students line up to cast their ballots in the 2020 presidential primary at a voter center in the University Memorial Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The estimated wait from the bottom of the stairs was about 15 minutes. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Jenny Martin, a 36-year-old who voted in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood, said it was her first time participating in a primary. She backed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “I’m registered independent, so this is my first,” she said as she jogged her ballot to her neighborhood’s drop-off box. “I’m excited to get to join in.”

For the voters whose ballots didn’t count because their preferred candidates withdrew from the race, lawmakers are considering reforms to the current system, but others think voters will adapt.

“I think people, next time, might wait to vote until Election Day,” said Sen. Steve Fenberg, the Democratic chamber’s majority leader. 

In addition, the Super Tuesday primary made Colorado a national player, even if the state was upstaged by larger prizes, such as California and Texas.

Democrats and Republicans applaud higher turnout 

Even the initial critics — the political parties — are now touting the primary and using the spike in voter participation to demonstrate enthusiasm for their cause.

“We think the move from a presidential caucus to a presidential primary was the right decision,” said Democratic Party Chairwoman Morgan Carroll in a statement Wednesday. “We have clearly seen the difference a primary makes in terms of more voters participating in the decision — and when more people vote, democracy wins.”

Sarah Matthews, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, said pointed to the numbers on the GOP side. Trump easily won the state’s delegates.

“We are seeing proof of the huge enthusiasm for President Trump in Colorado where turnout for the 2020 Republican presidential primary is higher than the previous three Republican presidential primaries combined,” she said.

Staff writers Jesse Paul, Eric Lubbers and Moe Clark contributed to this report.

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