If you have never been to a Colorado caucus or assembly, you are not alone. To the contrary, you must be a member of the large majority that has never participated. Maybe that is why serial political tinkerer Kent Thiry recently pushed for legislation to eliminate them.
Both caucus and assembly are political theater for activists. They are relics of the past packed with nostalgia and fond remembrances. But the past is where they belong.
I have been to plenty of both. As an activist. As a political operative. And as a candidate. The idea that they provide anything more than a gantlet for would-be elected officials to utter shibboleths to the most ardent partisans is naïve.
For years I have been a full-throated critic of party primaries in Colorado. They have been a source of division not just across our state, but the country. When the majority of elected offices are elected from noncompetitive districts — no more one in 10 congressional races are competitive and demographic realities mean it is impossible to climb above even 30% — primaries become the ground where seats are won and lost.
Caucuses and assemblies amplify that dynamic.
Attendees typically represent only a very small fraction of voters registered with their party. Given that even the two major parties have been in dramatic decline as a percentage of the population for nearly two decades, that means a small fraction of a small fraction is making decisions for everyone.
Candidates can forgo the caucuses and assemblies if they chose, but it comes at a cost. The top vote getter nominated at assembly are listed first on the ballot, an advantage that can lead to a vote bump of a few percentage points or more. In a close race, that could be a big deal.
If it were up to me, Colorado would move immediately to an Alaska-style system forgoing party nominations and primaries altogether. Every candidate would petition onto an open primary, voters would choose their top four based on a ranked choice vote, and those four would square off again in the general election.
That would be a pretty big deviation from our archaic system. And likely not feasible.
That is likely why Thiry has been methodically moving the ball over the past decade. He gave unaffiliated voters, by far the largest bloc in Colorado, a say in party primaries. Now he is going after the caucuses and assemblies. He would also allow unaffiliated voters to sign petitions for party candidates.
These are the type of incremental moves that eventually give rise to real change.
Of course, he will face stiff opposition from both sides of the aisle. First, sitting elected officials may recognize that those changes could be a direct threat to their own seats. Changing the rules that got them elected probably is not a big selling point for them.
Similarly, the two major parties are not likely to be thrilled. Democrats in Colorado have prospered under the current system — they may ask why they should fix what is not broken. Republicans are simply defending their fiefdoms so fiercely, almost exclusively through intraparty strife, that they will reflexively strike at anything that may upset the status quo.
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In fact, the state legislature shot down Thiry’s attempt to pass these reforms last week. That means he will likely put another large chunk of his fortune behind another ballot initiative. It probably will not bother him too much considering the success he has had following that path in the past.
Colorado’s quaint caucus and assembly system may have fit our state in decades long ago, but it is time to move on. As our state changes, we should adopt systems that better reflect who we are today. Maybe we will get that chance in a not-too-distant election.
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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