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Voters drop off ballots on June 28, 2022, at Adams County Motor Vehicle in Adams County. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Unaffiliated voters in Colorado, who make up 45% of the state’s electorate, have been able to cast ballots in partisan primaries for three election cycles. 

But they have never voted in a Republican primary as they did in 2022.

More than 231,000 unaffiliated voters cast Republican primary ballots this year, about 100,000 more than chose to vote in the GOP primary in 2020 and 130,000 more than voted in the 2018 GOP primary.

Ben Engen, a conservative political strategist, said the script flipped this year from 2018.

Engen said that could be an indication that unaffiliated voters are leaning toward GOP candidates heading into November. “We all know how Republicans fared among unaffiliated voters and in the elections of 2018,” he said.

Ian Silverii, a Democratic political strategist whose wife, state Sen. Brittany Pettersen, is running in the 7th Congressional District, disagrees with Engen’s analysis. 

Silverii points out there were no contested statewide Democratic primaries this year, while there were fierce battles for the Republican nominations for U.S. Senate, governor and secretary of state. Simply put, the GOP primaries were more competitive, and that could be why so many more unaffiliated voters decided to cast Republican primary ballots this year.

“There’s no evidence at all that primary votes with an uncontested Democratic ballot and an almost completely contested Republican ballot will have any bearing on the general election whatsoever,” he said. 

The number of unaffiliated ballots cast for Republicans is expected to rise as more ballots are processed in the coming days. There were about 40,000 unaffiliated ballots across the state that still had to be tabulated as of Friday morning, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.

Meanwhile, it looks like 2022 may be the year with the lowest number of Democratic primary ballots cast by unaffiliated voters. 

Only about 161,000 unaffiliated voters’ ballots processed through Friday morning were cast in the Democratic primary. The previous low was in 2018, the first year unaffiliated voters could cast ballots in partisan primaries, when 179,742 voted Democratic ballots.

In some counties, unaffiliated voters cast more than half of all GOP primary ballots

Unaffiliated voters were the deciding factor in some counties’ GOP primaries, accounting for more than half of all the Republican primary votes cast.

San Miguel County, for instance, had the highest percentage of Republican primary ballots cast by unaffiliated voters, at 70%. Of the 1,191 GOP primary votes cast this year in the county, 836 were cast by unaffiliated voters.

Ouray County came in second at 60% of the GOP primary votes being cast by unaffiliated voters, while Pitkin and Gunnison counties weren’t far behind, at 59% each.. 

All of those counties are in the 3rd Congressional District, where there was a loosely organized effort to get Democrats to switch their voter affiliation to unaffiliated to cast ballots in the Republican primary for state Sen. Don Coram as part of an unsuccessful effort to block U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert from winning a second term.

In Denver, a liberal stronghold,48% of all the Republican ballots cast were cast by unaffiliated voters.

Even Boulder County, considered the most reliably Democratic part of Colorado, saw a large portion of its unaffiliated voter electorate — 44% — cast ballots in the Republican primaries.

Turnout was uneven in congressional districts

A total of 1,204,528 ballots were cast in this year’s primaries, resulting in a 32% turnout among active, registered voters. 

The congressional primary this year with the largest number of ballots cast was the Republican contest in the 3rd Congressional District. More than 128,000 ballots were cast in the race in which Boebert easily fended off Coram.

The 4th District GOP contest came in second, with more than 120,000 ballots cast. In that race, U.S. Rep. Ken Buck secured a big victory over Bob Lewis, an Elbert County real estate broker.

Interestingly enough, the Republican primary with the fewest ballots cast was in the new, highly competitive 8th Congressional District. Roughly 57,000 ballots were cast in that race.

The 8th District isn’t a ruby red district like the 3rd and the 4th districts, so there were fewer Republicans voting in the primary race.

The Colorado Sun has heard from some voters in the 8th District who were unaware they live in a new battleground. The district also has the fewest number of registered voters of all eight congressional districts in Colorado.

The low number is further indication that the 8th District general election race will likely hinge on turnout. There is expect to be a very big voter registration and get-out-the-vote push in the district over the summer and in the fall.