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July 22, 2021 11:21 AM UTC

Republicans Seek to Close Open Primaries, Exclude Unaffiliated Voters

  • by: Michael Lund

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Just four years after Colorado’s first open primary, a faction of Republican leaders are attempting to opt-out of the laws approved by voters in 2016 which allowed unaffiliated voters to cast votes in partisan primaries. If successful, the largest group of Colorado voters, those without affiliation to a political party who represent nearly 40% of the state’s 4 million voters, will lose their voice in determining Republican nominees for U.S. president and state office races.

Chuck Bonniwell, one of a few dozen members of the Colorado Republican Party Executive Committee and host of a conservative podcast focused on state politics, is traveling the state in an effort backed by a contingent of grassroots Republicans to garner enough votes among county GOP officers to opt out of the open primaries

“Chuck and his merry band of rebels are now touring the eastern and southeastern part of the state, basically talking to all kinds of Republican grassroots groups about changing the way that we have this open primary system. Their point is it’s destroying the Colorado Republican Party. They want to go back to having a closed primary. They’re fighting an uphill battle,” explained Bonniwell’s wife and co-host during an episode of their show earlier this month.

As with other issues, Colorado Republicans are divided on opting out of open primaries along the now-familiar fault lines of grassroots conservatives who generally support former President Trump, his statements, and his policies, versus more traditional, so-called “establishment” party members who are generally more moderate and centrist. Control over the party and regaining political standing for the GOP in Colorado are at stake.

Republican campaign adviser, former Colorado chair of the GOP, and political commentator Dick Wadhams appeared on Bonniwell and Hayden’s show in February and discussed the prospect of opting out of open primaries.

“To be honest, I think it would be a mistake,” said Wadhams. “And in fact, I was engaged in that debate when this came up a few years ago when there was a [failed] vote in the state central committee to attempt to get the 75% to to opt out of the of the primary and go to a state convention for nominations. And I just I think that would be a mistake, because if we’re going to be able to appeal at all to unaffiliated voters who determine elections in this state — and always have, by the way, — [it would be counterproductive.]”

In order to opt out of open primaries, 75% of the GOP state central committee members would have to vote in favor. Bonniwell and others have contested the legality and constitutionality of that requirement, since the open primaries were approved by simple majorities in a vote of the people.

Nonetheless, it appears that Bonniwell’s group will not initiate a challenge to that rule, and will attempt to garner the approximately 390 votes needed, which is the equivalent of 75% of the state central committee.

The grassroots Republicans believe that open primaries incentivize wealthy Democratic donors to support moderate Republican candidates in primary races to ensure they beat the grassroots candidates.

Bonniwell regularly cites media heiress Kathryn Murdoch as influencing electoral outcomes in Colorado Republican primaries. While Murdoch’s Unite America PAC did spend substantial sums in last year’s GOP primary, it was only one of several “pro-establishment” Colorado groups playing in Republicans’ statehouse primaries.

Bonniwell gave this update from the road on his show earlier this month:

“I’m in Edad, Colorado — Kiowa County, which is where the Sand Creek Massacre occurred. I just met with the vice-chair [of Kiowa County GOP] and [I was] convincing him that we got to take the Republican primaries back for Republicans and not let Kathryn Murdoch buy every seat and every squish Republican she can get. So, it was a great meeting and we’ve got another proponent there. Now, there are three, hopefully, from Kiowa County. And we just pick them off a few at a time. We’ve got to get 390 [votes among the state central committee members], so, three less now. … And the worst part about that is that Kathryn Murdoch pours hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars into conservative counties and overwhelms the conservative person with somebody else who then go to the legislature and votes with the Democrats.”

Hayden echoed Bonniwell’s assertion, saying, “That’s a theory. And that’s, again — that’s why [establishment Republicans] won the open primary. And so I would recommend to people, don’t listen. You’re going to hear Republicans — some of the establishment guys are going to say things like, ‘Oh, well, we won’t appeal to the unaffiliated voters.’”

Passed by voters in 2016, Propositions 107 and 108 defined the parameters allowing party members and unaffiliated voters to participate in balloted primary elections, both for the U.S. presidential primaries and primaries for statewide races. Voters with no party affiliation can submit a single ballot in the primary races for the party of their choice.

Prior to 2016 in Colorado, party nominees for U.S. president had been determined by a caucus system, whereby voters registered with a political party (i.e., Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Green Party, etc.) gathered in person by precinct to debate and persuade one another in determining the precinct’s choice for the party nominee. Precinct results were then tallied to determine the statewide nominee for each party. Unaffiliated voters could not participate.

Proposition 107 passed in Colorado with a 28% margin. Referred to voters by the Colorado General Assembly, this law reformed state election law to institute primary elections to determine presidential nominees for political parties.

Similarly, Proposition 108 passed decisively but by a much smaller margin, with about 8% more votes favoring open primaries.

The 2016 campaigns in support of 107 and 108 had large financial advantages over opponents, receiving over $4 million in donations. Kent Thiry, the former CEO of Denver’s Fortune 500 kidney dialysis company DaVita, contributed $1 million in backing the effort promoted by an organization called Let Colorado Vote.

Both ballot measures were hailed for their potential to democratize the primary process, include more voters, and wrest control of deciding nominees from engaged party activists.

Opponents to the measures included both Democratic and Republican Party leaders, who contended that open primaries could lead to bad faith players influencing primary results, while removing incentives for voters to join a party.


29 thoughts on “Republicans Seek to Close Open Primaries, Exclude Unaffiliated Voters

    1. Agreed.  And I don't think it's a crazy idea that a party should be able to choose its own candidates without nonparty members getting a say. 

      1. Couple that with a few more party-sanctioned voting restrictions and hurdles, and the Ttump Party heartily seconds the motion . . .

        (. . . many of CHB’s mythical “real” conservatives may be scratching their heads and wondering, however . . .)

        Perhaps the biggest share of the problem with today’s American system of party politics is, oh I don’t know, maybe . . .the Parties?

      2. Let the Republicans have their closed primaries and closed caucuses. If you are looking for me on election night I will be at the democrats victorious election parties as the Democrats continue to dominate here in Colorado. 

  1. I support more progressive politics than most current Republicans would allow.

    I would have voted for Lincoln back in 1860, and it would have only bothered me a little that I did not have much is him being the nominee.

    However, I have registered both R and D in Colorado specifically so I could caucus, though I think the caucus system is dumb and exclusionary. State convention is likewise dumb and exclusionary.

    I favor ranked voting, 50% +1 required to win and runoff for any candidate with 30% of the cast votes.

    But the real comedy reminds me of Butch and Sundance trying to figure out if they can swim. The fall is going to kill them.

    Republican candidates not appealing to true unaffiliated voters has nothing to do with open or closed primaries.


  2. Given a choice between Chuck Bonniwell and Dick Wadhams, I know whose instincts I would trust more.  But hey, if Republicans want to get out of the opportunities to put their party in front of voters during a primary season, and want to pick their candidate in a convention, I'll be interested to see what emerges. 

    No primary would mean no need to gather signatures (or be embarrassed by that process). Gubernatorial candidate Stapleton and Rep. Lamborn would definitely have appreciated that in 2018.

    Letting the activists choose the nominee would help clarify the party's control and allow message to compete with organizational skills.  The existing convention structure got excited about Darryl Glenn for Senate.  And preferred Calandra Vargas over Lamborn.  With successes like that, conventions would clearly define the Colorado Republicans — for good and ill.

    1. They can’t totally opt out of primaries, only opt out of letting Unaffiliateds vote in their primaries. Even of they did this, they would still have to go thru assemblies or petitioning to get on a primary ballot. The only difference is it would be only registered Republicans voting for them.


      1. But it still won’t keep people from registering cross-party and then switching back, or unafffiliateds registering with a party just long enough to sandbag an undesirable candidate.

  3. Being anti-fascist, anti-sedition, and anti-Trump … I think this is a great idea!

    A small cadre of radical, right-wing reactionaries can vote in the 'Party of Trump' primary to nominate the most radical, right-wing Trumpies to be the standard bearers for the Colorado Republican Party.

    In this scenario we might get down to about 10 Republicans in the state House and maybe 5 in the state Senate. The Colorado Republican Party might even work itself into not qualifying as a 'major party'!

    1. “The Colorado Republican Party might even work itself into not qualifying as a ‘major party’!”

      Didn’t they briefly manage to achieve that accomplishment after the 2010 election when Dan Maes pulled about 10% of the vote in the gubernatorial election for the Party of Lincoln, Nixon, Reagan, Trump?

      And to put that sad fact into perspective, after the Berlin Wall came down, the Party of Democratic Socialism (formerly known as the Communist Party) still managed to pull 16.4% in the East Germany’s one and only open and free election in 1990.

  4. “it’s (open primary) destroying the Republican party……..”

    No, what’s destroying the Party is the blind, non-questioning, worship of the orange haired, corrupt, lying, con-man. 

  5. My opinion is that so long as the taxpayer is paying for elections, they need to be open to all citizens. The demographic trend is toward more, not fewer unafilliated voter registrations. Everyone needs to be allowed to vote in all elections so long as everyone is paying for them.

    From the SOS office: Total active voters in the state of Colorado as of July 1, 2021: 3,837,743 of which 1,003,435 are GOP, 1,127,545 are DEM, and 1,635,981 3 are unafilliated.

    1. Well, as it stands, the governments pay for the elections and the people can vote.  If the party of your registration is holding a primary, you don't get a ballot OTHER than that one.  If not, you can vote in any party primary being held. But if 3/4ths majority of the party's committee wants to opt out, they can.  I think if Republican DO opt out, they choose their candidate however they want — and all of their voters would be free to vote in other party's primaries.  [Can anyone confirm that is how it would work?]

      1. The laws for how to get on the ballot are in a different section of the statutes than the laws regulating who gets to vote in an election. So the assembly and/or petition process is not affected one way or the other by the law being discussed here.

        All the GOP could opt out of letting U's vote in their primaries.

      2. Also, anyone registered with a party (any party) can only get a primary ballot for that party. If a party cancels their primary because they have no uncontested races, then their voters simply do not get a primary ballot. If there is a ballot question being asked at the same election, they can get a ballot with just the question(s) on it.

        However, the issue being discussed here is that Unaffiliated voters can request a primary ballot for any party that is having a primary election. If they live in a county that does all mail ballots they are sent both a D ballot and an R ballot and can choose which to submit (it they try to submit both, their vote is either not counted, if submitted together, of they count the first one received if they come in at different times.)

  6. I am an unaffiliated voter. I understand the argument that it should be members of a party who selects their nominee. But I also understand that using the semi-open primary we have (only Unaffiliated have a choice which party to vote for, people registered with a party can only vote for their own party) is a good way to select the most electable candidate for the actual election in Nov.

    Having said that, I really enjoy being able to cast my U vote in whichever primary I feel it does the most good.  In 2020, I voted R in the Pres. Primary so I could vote for someone (anyone) other than Trump, but I voted D in the State primary so I would have a say in the US Senate Dem nomination.

    1. So in 2020, you voted one line on the R ballot, and one line on the D ballot?

      I have a feeling your last ballot cast is the only one that counted. The point being voters registered unaffiliated may vote any party's primary. But only that party primary.

  7. I say let the GOP curl tighter into its foul little nest. Let them elect only Trumpy, Big Lie-spouting Boeberts and  Hankses in Colorado. Let them run them for Governor, infecting each other with COVID for "freedumb", and cry conspiracy when they inevitably lose the elections.

    Letting unaffiliateds vote in both primaries probably does move both parties closer to center. I say let the GOP drop right off the right side into oblivion.


    1. Of course, that works both ways.  Several states including Washington and Nebraska had both caucuses and beauty contest primaries in 2 016.  Bernie won the caucuses, Hillary won the primaries.

  8. Why don't they cancel the primary or caucus altogether, send the $$$ they save to Mar-A-Lago, and let DJT vet and nominate all their candidates?

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