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Legislature fails to act on presidential primary

Failed efforts come despite cries for reform
A voter enters Sunnyside Elementary School in March for caucus night. Lawmakers failed this year to switch to a presidential primary system following a chaotic caucus process.

DENVER – State lawmakers failed to create a presidential primary in Colorado, despite cries from across the state following chaotic caucuses.

One bill, which would have required temporary affiliation for unaffiliated voters to participate, was killed in a Republican-controlled Senate committee Tuesday. The voters’ registrations would automatically return to unaffiliated after 30 days.

The election would have been conducted similar to general elections, in which voters receive a mail-ballot or have the option to vote in person.

The other bill, which died before receiving a full vote in either chamber, would have required affiliation for unaffiliated voters, though voters could request a return to unaffiliated status after the election.

Lawmakers felt this year offered the best chance to change the system, drawing upon frustration that spilled over following the March 1 caucus, as voters expressed anger over long lines and confusion.

The state last held a presidential primary in 2000; the caucus system was restored before the 2004 election.

Neither bill would have eliminated the caucus system, in which neighbors gather to support or oppose candidates in a grass-roots nominating process. Those caucuses would have continued for other races.

“The people of Colorado want a change, and we had an opportunity this year to make it easier for every voter to participate in choosing our next president,” said Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, who sponsored both bills. “Instead, by failing to act, Colorado voters will continue to be at risk of being left out of the process every four years.”

The bills were derailed by lawmakers who fought to preserve the caucus process, arguing that “party bosses” and “big business” “held a gun” to the Legislature’s head.

Fears grew that the affiliation requirements would allow parties to track voters, which is troubling to many unaffiliated voters. Even the legislation that would have created a temporary affiliation would have left a c record of the party chosen.

Both major state parties in Colorado supported a switch to a presidential primary, as did Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican.

Overshadowing the debate was a proposed ballot initiative – spearheaded by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce – that would create an open primary, sending ballots to all voters, including unaffiliated.

The primary price tag, about $5 million, didn’t help. Lawmakers opted not to find money this year, saying they would pay for it in a few years, before the next presidential race in 2020.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who voted against the bill Tuesday, said he wasn’t comfortable backing rushed legislation.

“We have four years to get it right, let’s make a commitment that we work together and figure out what the answer is to make it work before the next presidential election, and let’s not introduce it in the waning days of the legislative session,” Sonnenberg said.

But Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, said voters sent a mandate to the Legislature to act.

“I like caucuses, but we’ve outgrown them, and this bill gives us what we need,” Jones said. “I was hopeful that we would come to an agreement on this. ... But now all of a sudden it seems like it’s not OK, and I don’t understand it.”

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

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