Unaffiliated voters flex their muscle in 2018 Colorado primary election

Jun 26, 2018

Supporters cheer for U.S. Rep. Jared Polis as he wins the Democratic nomination for the Colorado Governor’s race at an election night rally, Tuesday, June 26, 2018, in Broomfield, Colo. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton are headed for a November showdown for governor of Colorado after a high-spending primary contest saw Democratic women turn out in droves and newly enfranchised unaffiliated voters lean blue.

Closer to home, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn flexed his staying power in the 5th Congressional District, El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder moved closer to a second term and Holly Williams and Cami Bremer survived two major hurdles in their quest to become El Paso County Commissioners.

The results capped a historic primary election for Colorado that saw record voter participation led by unaffiliated voters who jumped at their first-ever shot at casting a ballot. Rather than pushing candidates to the middle, though, it appeared that Republican and Democratic candidates could be not far enough right or far enough left for these unaffiliated voters’ political palates. Stapleton aligned himself with the far right firebrands of his party and Polis, a five-term Boulder Congressman who would become the nation’s first openly gay man elected governor if he beats Stapleton, represents a sharp left shift for the Democrats.

Twenty-four percent of ballots cast came from that new voting bloc – the state’s largest, numbering 1.2 million registered voters in all. The fact that nearly a quarter of them voted was expected – if not better than anticipated – and suggested politicians in this decidedly purple state must reckon with having a new political force for years to come, political observers said Tuesday evening.

“It’s going to be a very powerful group that no one will ever ignore again,” said Floyd Ciruli, president of Ciruli Associates, a Denver-based independent political polling firm.

Their early returns also suggested a new voting contingent feeling a bit blue and leaning to the left, political observers said.

Unaffiliated people who cast Democratic ballots outnumbered their GOP-voting unaffiliated counterparts by more than 51,000 people, as of 7 p.m. Tuesday, according to Colorado’s Secretary of State.

“These signs are not very good for Republicans in Colorado,” added Joseph Postell, associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Count Dana Stowe, 31, among those unaffiliated voters who skewed blue Tuesday.

A longtime independent, Stowe, of Colorado Springs, said her deep displeasure with President Donald Trump pushed her to the primary ballot box. And had Colorado not changed its laws, Stowe said she would have registered as a Democrat just to vote in the primary.

“Trump is a scary person,” Stowe said. “Not being able to vote before – it hurts our country.”

Organizers of the ballot measures that opened Colorado’s primaries to unaffiliated voters in 2016 argued that allowing them to participate would result in more centrist candidates running for office – their chances hinging on the whims of more independent and, theoretically, moderate voters.

Political observers cautioned in the run up to Tuesday’s election that unaffiliated voters appear as diverse – and at times even as politically polarized – as their Republican or Democratic neighbors

And in the first major contest under that new system, few signs suggested such a centrist change.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates – led by Polis and Cary Kennedy, a former state treasurer – both swung to the left with pitches for such liberal proposals as universal health care, renewable energy and immigrant rights.

Meanwhile, Republican candidates such as Kennedy’s successor as treasurer, Stapleton, courted deep-red voters, voicing support for President Donald Trump, guns, tax cuts and tougher immigration policy.

Colorado College professor emeritus Bob Loevy, a political scientist, suggested that clues to that trend lay in New Hampshire’s presidential primary. There, unaffiliated voters tend not to vote for a party’s platform, but rather for whoever moves them emotionally.

“Usually it’s not issues that move unaffiliateds to go into a particular primary and vote – it’s usually a charismatic candidate,” Loevy said.

Stowe ranked among the voters Tuesday to fit that mold. Moments after voting for Polis, she said the Congressman’s support for the LGBT community sealed her support.

“On a personal level, we have the same experiences,” she said.

Across the state, Democratic women flooded polling places and ballot boxes across Colorado – outnumbering their male counterparts by 83,000 by 7 p.m., even as the gender difference among Republicans was flat and several thousand more unaffiliated men cast ballots than unaffiliated women.

Political observers credited the turnout of Democratic women to the staying power of the #MeToo movement, a Democratic contest that saw two women on the ballot, and campaigns that highlighted issues important to women, including health care and education.

“As much as anything, it’s the moment we’re in,” Ciruli said.

The statewide Democratic lean among unaffiliated voters failed to materialize to the same extent in El Paso County – a conservative stronghold where registered Republicans outnumbered both Democrats and unaffiliated voters during Tuesday’s election by a more than two-to-one margin.

About 52 percent of the 130,028 votes known to be cast in El Paso County late Tuesday evening came from registered Republicans. Democratic voters and unaffiliated voters accounted for another 24 percent, each.

Unaffiliated voter Darryl Money, 45, joined the Republican majority in El Paso County by focusing on the GOP field.

Having not voted in at least a decade, Money only decided to fill out a ballot because he was in the neighborhood, and he wanted to make use of the extra time he had while waiting for his Department of Veterans Affairs appointment.

He cast a Republican ballot out of displeasure with Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. And he voted for Stapleton.

“It’s time to start becoming more involved,” Money said. “I finally got tired of all the drama and all the B.S. I see on TV.”

The first-ever primary election allowing unaffiliated people to vote also caused some confusion that saw hundreds or even thousands of Coloradans’ votes go uncounted, due to the fact that they submitted two ballots.

Under the state’s new primary system – approved by voters in 2016 – unaffiliated voters could only vote in one party’s primary. Voters who do not request a specific party’s ballot were mailed two – with explicit instructions only to return one.

Voting experts feared as many as 7 percent of voters turned in two ballots – a trend that held true in El Paso County as recently as last week.

But the number of duplicate ballot submissions dwindled over the election’s final week, county and state officials said.

El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman said that figure was “markedly” lower on Tuesday.

“It’s a new process for all of us in the state,” Broerman said.

The new system also stoked fears of people voting strategically – switching off their current party affiliation to become unaffiliated, and then voting for their opposing political party’s weaker candidate.

The Colorado Secretary of State reported relatively few instances of such behavior, with only about 600 people switching off their current political parties to become unaffiliated, according to the Denver Post.

Dominic Fontem, 57, was just grateful the state’s laws had changed to allow him to participate.

Tuesday marked his first-ever election in America – having only just become a U.S. citizen in January after emigrating from Cameroon.

And as an independent, he would have had to wait another five months to vote, had Colorado not changed its primary process.

“It shows that my voice will be heard, and my vote will be counted,” Fontem said.

Gazette reporter Haley Witt contributed to this report.