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Colorado GOP goes all in on trying to block unaffiliated voters from its primaries

State party files lawsuit and is considering a bylaw amendment to opt out of primaries
Dave Williams speaks during a Republican state central meeting on March 11 in Loveland where elections for a chairman, vice chairman and secretary of the Colorado GOP were conducted. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America file)

The Colorado GOP filed a federal lawsuit Monday doubling down on its attempt to block unaffiliated voters from casting ballots in the party’s 2024 primaries as part of a controversial strategy to help Republicans exit obscurity after three straight election cycles of defeat.

The legal action comes as the party’s leaders are set to gather Saturday to consider a bylaws amendment backed by Colorado GOP Chair Dave Williams that would make it easier for Republicans to opt out of Colorado’s primaries next year altogether.

The Republican Party is represented in the lawsuit by John Eastman, the attorney who helped Donald Trump try to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and who appeared to be an unindicted co-conspirator in an indictment against Trump that was released Tuesday.

Randy Corporon, a conservative talk radio host and a member of the Republican National Committee, is also representing the GOP in the case. The defendant is Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat and the state’s top elections official.

“We welcome all unaffiliated voters to join our party if they want to have a say in selecting our nominees but we will not stand idly by as radical left-wing organizations use an unconstitutional law to further harm our election efforts,” Williams wrote in an email to Colorado GOP members Tuesday announcing the legal action. The email also asked for donations to support the lawsuit.

A federal judge rejected a similar lawsuit filed by a group of Republicans in 2020 seeking to ban unaffiliated voters from the primary that year. The judge said the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to sue because the legal action wasn’t brought by the state party itself. Eastman and Corporon were also the attorneys in that suit.

Eastman was a conservative scholar at the University of Colorado and he may soon be disbarred by the state of California for his spread of 2020 election conspiracies.

FILE – Chapman School of Law professor John Eastman testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 16, 2017, at a House Justice subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet hearing on restructuring the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Jan. 6 committee is scheduled to probe the pressure Donald Trump put on his vice president, Mike Pence, to stop Joe Biden’s victory. Thursday's hearing is expected to highlight a highly unorthodox proposal from conservative law professor John Eastman. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The latest lawsuit seeks to exempt the Colorado GOP from a 2016 ballot measure that lets unaffiliated voters cast ballots in partisan primaries. The complaint alleges that the 2022 GOP primary outcomes in the U.S. Senate, gubernatorial and secretary of state contests may have been different if some 246,000 unaffiliated voters had not joined 423,000 Republicans in casting ballots in the parties’ primaries. The margins of victory in those contests ranged from nearly 49,000 votes to nearly 89,000 votes.

“Unaffiliated voters have had an outcome-determinative impact on at least some prior Republican primary elections,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit included a copy of a Colorado Sun story from last year highlighting how more unaffiliated voters cast ballots last year in the GOP’s primaries than they ever before. However, there were no statewide contested Democratic primaries in 2022.

Unaffiliated voters make up the largest share of Colorado’s electorate, at nearly 50%.

“The court dismissed the prior lawsuit and we continue to believe the new lawsuit has no merit,” Griswold said in a statement. “As Secretary of State, I will always stand up for voters to ensure that their constitutional right to cast a ballot is protected.”

Meanwhile, Williams, who was elected party chair in March, announced last week that he supports an amendment to the state party’s bylaws that would make it easier for Republicans to opt out of Colorado’s 2024 primaries.

The amendment, drafted by conservative commentator Chuck Bonniwell, will be considered Saturday at the Colorado GOP’s central committee meeting in Castle Rock. It requires two-thirds support to pass, a threshold that Bonniwell admitted he may not be able to meet.

“If the Bonniwell amendment fails to pass, then there will be no realistic chance to even preserve the right to opt-out of the open primary,” Williams wrote in an email to Republican Party members.

The amendment would make a nonvote by a member of the central committee an automatic “yes” vote on any action that requires the approval of at least 70% of the committee’s support to pass. Under Proposition 108, the 2016 ballot measure letting unaffiliated voters cast ballots in partisan primaries, the Colorado Democratic and Republican parties can opt out of the change if 75% of their respective central committees agree to do so.

“This public pronouncement isn’t being taken lightly,” Williams wrote. “Both proponents and opponents of this amendment should have faith that the process is free and fair from any undue influence, especially from someone who is charged with administering the debate.”

Williams said in a letter to the central committee that he will hand over his gavel Saturday to the chairman pro tem at the Colorado GOP’s central committee meeting “to absolutely ensure that faith is maintained in the process.”

But not all Republicans think the amendment is a good idea.

The GOP branches in Weld, Morgan and Arapahoe counties have written letters opposing the Bonniwell amendment.

“To strip any citizen of the right to vote or not vote under both the Colorado and United States Constitution is simply wrong no matter how you look at it,” Hunter Rivera, acting chairman of the Weld County Republican Party, said in a written statement. “Automatically making a nonvote a ‘yes’ vote flies in the face of the principles this country was built on.”

Arapahoe County GOP Chair Anne Rowland wrote in a letter that the amendment is “unfair.” She said it “negates the voice of duly elected members of the central committee and their constituents – the workhorses of our party who are also entitled to a voice through their elected representative.”

“To avoid the disenfranchisement of grassroots Republicans, no vote should ever be cast or counted – either in the affirmative or the negative – unless the CRC member who is guaranteed that right to vote casts that themselves or grants another individual the right to cast that vote in their absence by proxy,” the letter said.

The Morgan County GOP said in its letter that it is “strongly” opposed to the Bonniwell amendment and called it “morally and ethically wrong.”

“The Morgan County Republican Party believes (the Bonniwell amendment) has been brought forth only because current Republican State Party leadership does not believe it has the … majority needed” to opt out of the primary, the letter said.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.