Maybe it is time to reform the political party nominating process in Colorado. The double-barreled system currently in use – which involves both a political party state assembly and candidates petitioning on to the ballot – is complicated and confusing for the average voter to understand and favors rich and well-financed candidates over those with less money to spend.
The weird mix-up in Walker Stapleton’s campaign for the Republican nomination for governor was the latest illustration of the problem. Stapleton originally planned to petition on to the Republican primary ballot, but problems with dubious petition signatures forced him at the last minute to go to the Republican State Assembly in Boulder on April 14.
Luckily for Stapleton, he won 44 percent of the delegate votes at the Coors Events Center at the University of Colorado, which was more than 30 percent and thus enough to qualify him for the primary ballot. A second candidate, former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez, received 33 percent and also made the GOP primary ballot.
State assemblies in Colorado function to vet and rank candidates for major statewide offices. The candidate getting the most delegate votes is listed first on the June party primary ballot. The candidate receiving the second highest number of delegate votes is listed second, and so on down the line.
Candidates hope to get “top line” designation on the primary ballot at the state assembly, and the political lore is that “top line” will win them more votes in the party primary. This happens, but not always.
State assemblies also were designed to eliminate marginal candidates from cluttering up the party primary ballot. A candidate is required to receive 30 percent, or more, of the delegate votes at the assembly to get on the ballot. Tally less than 30 percent, and your candidacy is all but over. Get 10 to 29 percent of the vote and you can start a late campaign to petition on to the ballot, a very difficult process. Got all that.
But it is also possible in Colorado to bypass the state assembly from the beginning by gathering petition signatures. About 10,500 are required to petition on to the ballot for governor. Petition on, and a candidate does not need delegate votes at the assembly at all. What is needed, however, is $200,000 to $300,000 to pay the petition gatherers. Former state Rep. Victor Mitchell successfully petitioned on to the Republican ballot for governor in the June primary.
There are real advantages to petitioning on to the ballot rather than going through the state assembly process. First, there is no worrying about not making the 30 percent cut off. As the number of candidates running at the state assembly for a particular office increases, the likelihood is that only two or possibly three could get the 30 percent required to qualify for the primary ballot.
Do the math. Once three candidates have 30 percent, an unlikely split anyway, it is not mathematically possible for any more candidates to get on the primary ballot via the state assembly.
That is what happened to current Attorney General Cynthia Coffman at the Republican State Assembly. She received only 5 percent of the votes (30 percent needed) and thus failed to be nominated to the primary ballot.
Candidates who do not want to take their chances at the state assembly can petition on to the ballot by paying professional organizations to gather signatures for them, thereby buying their way in to the primary election. Petitioning on is thus particularly attractive to candidates who are either personally wealthy or are successful money raisers. They have plenty of money to pay people to gather signatures for them.
It is our contention that the relatively low cost (for a wealthy or well-funded candidate) of petitioning on to the ballot may be attracting wealthy people to run for political office in Colorado. This has been particularly true since the courts have ruled that petition gatherers can be paid and do not have to be volunteers.
When major candidates for statewide office, such as governor and U.S. senator, petition on to the ballot, the state assembly loses much of its significance. What good is the ranking process – getting top line – if many of the major candidates are not in the running at the state assembly but are petitioning on instead.
The Democratic State Assembly, also held April 14, was at the 1stBank Center arena in Broomfield. Cary Kennedy, a former state treasurer, won 62 percent of the delegate vote and took “top line.” In second place was U.S. Representative Jared Polis, who won 33 percent of the vote (30 percent needed) and also qualified for the primary ballot. But two other candidates, former state Senator Mike Johnston, and current Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynn, petitioned on to the Democratic primary ballot for governor and were not voted on at the Democratic state assembly at all.
Sadly, getting on the Republican or Democratic primary ballot for governor or U.S. senator by petitioning on is now a sold commodity in Colorado. Private firms hire professional petition gatherers and will get virtually anyone on the primary ballot for a price. And buying your way on the primary ballot is a more certain method than taking your chances with that 30 percent rule at the state assembly.
The state assemblies are still critically important for designating candidates for other state offices, such as state treasurer, state attorney general, and state secretary of state. There is much less petitioning on for these lower offices.
The nominating process in Colorado has become needlessly complex. It has evolved into a mish-mash of the state assembly and the petition process that is difficult for everyone to comprehend.
We recommend that next year’s session of the state legislature consider the following reforms in January 2019: