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Primary Problem

Report: Fewer than 1 in 5 eligible Colorado voters are casting ballots in competitive elections

Colorado’s “Primary Problem” helps explain why its legislature is the most polarized in the country. A proposed reform could fix it.

Ross Sherman
Press Director
April 30, 2024

 The Unite America Institute released new research today showing that fewer than one in five eligible Colorado voters are casting ballots in meaningful elections — competitive elections not effectively pre-determined based on party affiliation alone. The report outlines how “Colorado’s Primary Problem” suppresses the will of the majority and punishes cooperation on important issues, a worrying dynamic given that the state’s legislature is ranked the most polarized in the country.

The core problem the report identifies is the lack of competition in Colorado’s general elections. Because 75% of races for the U.S. House and 84% of races for the state house were safe for either Democrats or Republicans in 2022, the general election was a foregone conclusion — making the primary the only election that mattered. In 2022 elections, just 18% of eligible Colorado voters cast ballots in consequential elections for U.S. House. For the state house, it was a mere 13%.

“The reason it seems like our elected leaders don’t represent us is that most of us don’t actually elect them,” said Nick Troiano, Executive Director of Unite America and author of The Primary Solution. “The sad reality is because of Colorado’s current primary system, no matter how high turnout is, very few votes actually matter in impacting the outcome. We support reforms that make our votes and voices matter more, which will encourage a more representative and functional government.”

Colorado has made improvements to its elections over the past decade, with the legislature implementing a vote by mail system and voters passing semi-open primaries and anti-gerrymandering reforms. This year, Unite America is supporting efforts to move Colorado toward majority-winner elections, which have two key principles:

  • Ensure every voter, regardless of party, has the right to vote for any candidate in every taxpayer-funded election
  • Require that candidates earn a majority of the vote in order to win an election.

"I’m proud of the work we have done to make Colorado a national leader on voter turnout and election security. We have been pioneers on creative policy design and technology solutions to improve the voting experience for all,” said Amber McReynolds, national election policy leader and former Director of Denver Elections. “Thanks to visionary policymakers and innovative election officials, Colorado has led on voting access and now it’s time to do it again. The next most urgent step we can take to build on that legacy is solving Colorado’s Primary Problem and ensuring that all voices matter in our democracy.”

The report points to U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert’s 2020 election as a prime example. Boebert successfully “primaried” incumbent Rep. Scott Tipton, despite only 19% of eligible voters casting ballots in that primary. The Primary Problem also helps explain why, even though Democrats have controlled the governorship and legislature since 2019, many of the party’s priorities, including bills to address housing, gun violence, and substance use, stalled due to infighting between the caucus’ progressive and moderate factions. 

“In today's hyper-partisan political environment, being a bomb-throwing extremist is good politics, whereas working across the aisle is a sure fire way to draw a primary challenge. As a former elected official, I experienced firsthand how Colorado’s flawed primary elections reward extremism and punish compromise,” said former State Rep. Colin Larson. “It’s time to fix our elections so elected officials are liberated to represent all of their constituents, rather than just kowtowing to the most extreme members of their own party.”

Colorado voters could have the opportunity to solve the Primary Problem this November. Last week, the Title Board approved several potential ballot measures that would implement a top-four nonpartisan primary combined with an instant runoff general election. Specifically, the current system of separate party primaries would be replaced by a top-four nonpartisan primary, where all candidates appear on one ballot — with their party labels — and all eligible voters can participate. The top four finishers, regardless of party, would advance to the general election, where an instant runoff would ensure the winner secures a majority. 

“So long as our leaders continue to be chosen in elections that empower a small unrepresentative minority, gridlock will continue,” said Terrance Carroll, former Speaker of the Colorado House. “Colorado voters deserve a government that’s capable of addressing big challenges. By updating and improving our elections, we can make that reality.”

According to prior research from the Unite America Institute, states that have nonpartisan primaries — including Alaska, California, and Louisiana — have seen increased competition, more meaningful voter participation, and more functional governance.