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Opinion Columns

Nicolais: Colorado’s presidential primary was an improvement, but we still need to make some tweaks

With a few adjustments to account for surprise dropouts and last-minute changes, Colorado would continue its positive progress

For years, Colorado politicos complained about our presidential selection process. Even after a host of fixes, this year’s primaries demonstrate a tweak or two may yet be needed.

In previous years, Colorado used the Byzantine caucus system to dole out its delegates. Generally occurring in early March, the caucuses originated as means to bring politics down to a local level.

Nominally, neighbors would gather in living rooms or school gymnasiums and engage in a robust discussion of candidates. In theory, the civic discourse would return the best results.

Mario Nicolais

In practice, the Colorado caucus system devolved into bitter intraparty fights. I’ve been an active participant in enough caucus-packing strategies – turning out specific people in each caucus with a slate of pre-determined delegates to vote for – to know it is a failed system that actively amplifies the most extreme voices in any party.

Colorado took several massive steps forward when it passed Propositions 107 and 108 in 2016. Not only did the ballot measures sweep aside the outdated caucus system, but it opened the door to unaffiliated voters to participate (something I took advantage of this year).

Except … the presidential primaries would have occurred in June, along with the primaries for other state candidates, long after the victorious presidential nominee has usually been determined. Due to the timing, Coloradans seemed destined to have even less voice than the caucuses delivered.

Recognizing the issue, Gov. Jared Polis and Secretary of State Jena Griswold separated the presidential primary from those for other races and scooted up the calendar.

Rather than attempting to wag the dog by the tail, Colorado joined a conglomerate of other states to vote on Super Tuesday, the first multi-state competition of the presidential race.

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All seemed set for the perfect rollout of our new system.

And then South Carolina happened. Followed by both Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg dropping out and endorsing Joe Biden. All within the 72 hours leading up to polls opening on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, Colorado’s use of an all-mail ballot system – itself a positive step toward voter engagement – meant that hundreds of thousands of votes had already been cast.

People who had cast votes for Klobuchar or Buttigieg suddenly found that their votes wouldn’t be counted. Others who voted early for Michael Bloomberg, believing he posed the most credible alternative to Bernie Sanders, now wanted a redo.

They were out of luck. It turns out that in addition to getting more exciting political mail, holding your ballot until election day can also protect you from nausea-inducing electoral rollercoasters. 

That said, another few minor tweaks might be in line for the less politically obsessed. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

To start, Colorado could move its presidential primary away from Super Tuesday and back a week or two with the next set of states slated to vote. Let the first batch winnow the field and then soak up the attention of presidential hopefuls just as Michigan is doing right now

Voters could drop their ballots in the mail the next day, after incorporating the Super Tuesday outcome, and likely still get it to the county clerk on time.

Alternatively, or in conjunction, Colorado could adopt a ranked choice voting system. Rather than casting a ballot for a single candidate, voters would rank their preference for each. 

Any voters who picked a candidate that dropped out before the primary would see their second or third choice bumped up. Even better? Colorado will have the benefit of seeing how ranked choice voting works for the handful of states using it this year.

The 2020 Colorado primary enjoyed record turnout and demonstrated the successful changes made to our system over the past few years. But it also showed a few holes still exist, holes that could be fixed by 2024.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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