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New UA Institute Report: “Colorado’s Primary Problem”

How partisan primaries limit voter choice, power, and representation.

Carlo Macomber
Research Manager
May 1, 2024

Topline: A new report from the Unite America Institute examines the problems with Colorado’s election system. The state’s use of partisan primaries and plurality-winner elections suppresses the will of the majority, dampens voter participation, distorts representation, and fuels division and dysfunction. As a result of its “Primary Problem,” 54 of Colorado’s 65 state house districts were “safe” for one major party in 2022 and just 13% of the eligible voters cast “meaningful votes” to elect the entire body. The report concludes by presenting evidence that nonpartisan primaries and majority-winner general elections provide voters with more choice, power, and better representation. 

The Unite America Institute released a new report on Colorado’s “Primary Problem,” detailing how partisan primaries limit voter choice, power, and representation for Colorado voters. Despite the fact that Colorado has been a leader in election modernization — including by adopting a full vote by mail system, implementing automatic voter registration, allowing independents to vote in partisan primaries, and establishing independent redistricting commissions to end partisan gerrymandering — the state’s use of partisan primaries and plurality-winner elections results in unrepresentative government. It specifically suppresses the will of the majority, limits meaningful voter participation, distorts representation, and fuels political division and dysfunction.

Colorado’s Primary Problem is characterized by three main problems:

  1. Colorado primary elections typically experience low turnout;
  2. Colorado elections lack competition;
  3. Colorado primary elections don’t give all voters an equal voice. 

While Colorado’s congressional general election turnout was among the top in the nation from 2010 to 2022, averaging 56.6% in midterm years and 73.4% in presidential election years, the same cannot be said of participation in primary elections. Turnout has averaged just 22% in primaries during this timeframe, and this is boosted by 2020’s unusually high primary turnout of 37%. From 2012-2016, Colorado’s primary turnout never surpassed 16% of eligible voters. 

This low level of primary turnout is particularly notable because most elections in Colorado are effectively determined during the primary. Competition in general elections is extremely limited. For example, in the six election cycles held between 2012 and 2022, there was not a single competitive general election in five of Colorado’s eight congressional districts. General election voters in districts 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7 had virtually no say in who represented them during this decade, as these elections were effectively decided in the dominant party’s primary. In 2022 specifically, six of the state’s eight districts were “safe” for one party or the other.

The story is similar for state house elections. In 2022, 54 of the state’s 65 state house districts were uncompetitive in the general election and were effectively decided in each district’s dominant party’s primary. Making matters worse, in 40 of these districts, only one candidate ran in the dominant party primary, meaning there was no competition at that stage either. Thus, in 62% of state house districts, no voters had a real voice in who would represent them in the legislature. 

As a result, not all votes are equally influential in determining which candidates are elected. Voters who live in districts with competitive general elections can influence who wins simply by participating in the general election. But, the same cannot be said of the vast majority of voters who live in districts with non-competitive general elections. In these districts, only votes cast in the dominant party’s primary are truly influential, and even then, there has to be more than one candidate running in that primary to give voters a choice. Further, voters who are registered with the non-dominant party in a district are not even eligible to vote in the consequential primary.

Based on the above, the report details how few Colorado voters cast “meaningful votes” to elect their state and federal representatives. In 2022:

  • Just 18% of Coloradans cast meaningful votes to determine the state’s entire eight-member U.S. House delegation.
  • Just 13% of Coloradans cast meaningful votes to elect the entire state house.

Colorado’s Primary Problem — in which a small number of unrepresentative voters effectively elect the state’s representatives — helps explain why Colorado’s state legislature is the most polarized in the nation, according to one recent study. The state’s Democratic and Republican caucuses have the largest ideological gap between them, making bipartisan and collaborative governing a challenge. The Unite America Institute report also includes five case studies that demonstrate the impact of the state’s Primary Problem, including the influence of special interest groups like the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners in partisan primaries and the division and dysfunction of the Democratic majority throughout the 2023 legislative session.

Solving the Primary Problem

One powerful solution to Colorado’s Primary Problem is replacing partisan primaries with nonpartisan primaries. In a nonpartisan primary, all candidates for a given office run on a single primary ballot, which still includes their party affiliation. All voters are eligible to participate, and they choose their preferred candidate for each office, regardless of their party. The top finishers advance to the general election, during which a candidate must earn majority support to win. Evidence shows that nonpartisan primaries give voters more voice and more choice, increase competition both in the primary and the general, improve candidates’ incentives while campaigning, and create more opportunities for voters to participate meaningfully.

If a proposed ballot initiative qualifies for the ballot, Colorado voters will have the opportunity to adopt top-four nonpartisan primaries this November. This reform would grant all voters equal access to pick any candidate they want in the primary election for each office (regardless of party affiliation). In the general election, candidates would have to earn majority support. The proposal would ensure that an election system funded by all taxpayers and administered by the government serves the public interest first and foremost.

Read the full report here.