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Colorado's Primary Fiasco

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
This article originally was published on June 16, 2018, at the Colorado Freedom Report, and ported here on May 26, 2024.

When my unaffiliated wife got two primary ballots (one Republican and one Democrat) whereas I got only one (Republican), it became crystal clear to me that, for most people, registering with a political party in Colorado is now a sucker's bet.

Unless you are very active within your political party—you do things like attend the caucus and collect signatures for candidates—all that registering with a party now does is reduce your options when you vote.

True, you can vote only one primary ballot. (If you send in both ballots, neither will count—as is the case with a significant minority of voters so far.) But getting both ballots means you have the option to vote in the primaries that you find most interesting. For example, this time around I don't have much interest in the Republican primaries, but I have a definite favorite in the Democratic primary race for governor. But I didn't have the option to vote in the Democratic primaries, because I'm a sucker registered with a party. (Actually I have been going to caucus and convention meetings, so I do have some reason to remain affiliated.)

The new system—this is the first major election year in which unaffiliated voters can vote in major-party primaries—also strongly encourages what I've started calling "torpedo voting."

As I Tweeted, if I were a Machiavellian Republican, I would have registered unaffiliated, then voted in the Democratic primaries just to promote the weaker candidates. For example, I think that Jared Polis will be the strongest contender for the Democrats in the governor's race this Fall (in part because he's richer than God). If I were a Machiavellian voter, I would have voted for Cary Kennedy (second in the polls) just to undermine Polis and weaken the Democrats' chances in the general election. (I mean no offense to Kennedy, I think she'd also be a fairly strong candidate, just not as strong as Polis.)

I'm not a Machiavellian voter, and I think intentionally voting for weaker candidates can be very dangerous. (What if you vote for a kook expecting him to lose and he pulls out a victory?) So, if I had been unaffiliated, I would have voted for Polis on the premise that, if the Democrats win the governor's race, I'd at least like the least-bad candidate in the office. But I'm stupid, apparently, and so remain affiliated with a major party.

The bad incentives are not the only problems with permitting unaffiliated voters to vote in major-party primaries. (See the history of Proposition 108 for details about the new system.)

Political parties are private organizations. Government has no proper business financing any party's selection of candidates for general elections. How parties select candidates should be up to them and should not be controlled by state law.

State-financed primaries amount to a free advertising blitz, funded by taxpayers, for the major parties. They help to institutionalize the major parties and confer on them special government privileges.

If political parties want to run primary elections by mail, let them organize and finance them. If parties want to let unaffiliated voters participate, that should be up to them. (The major parties can opt out of the primary system altogether under current rules, but their options are artificially and severely restricted.)

The government's proper job is to run general elections. Government should stop favoring the major parties and set the same ballot access rules for all comers. I'm not even convinced that government should list candidates' party affiliations on the ballot, but, if it does, it should let parties decide which candidates may claim their titles.

Meanwhile, as I advocate for a truly fair election process, all I can do is work within the given system as well as I can. As I've argued, the new rules do offer some chance for liberty-minded party activists to end-run party loyalists by running candidates through the petition and primary process.

For most people, though, the message is clear: If you register to vote with a political party, you are a sucker.

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