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Caucus 101: The explainer you never knew you needed 

click to enlarge Voters attend a precinct caucus in 2016. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Voters attend a precinct caucus in 2016.

In Iowa, an app malfunction delayed the results of the Feb. 3 caucuses and sent the Democratic Party into a tailspin, causing many to question whether the state should continue to hold its spot as the first in the nation to weigh in on presidential nominees. (South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg eventually emerged as the winner, followed closely by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.)

Colorado voters, unlike Iowans, do not choose presidential candidates through a caucus process. Ballot initiatives approved by voters in 2016 re-established primary elections run by the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. Thanks to those ballot initiatives, you don’t have to be affiliated with the Democratic or Republican party to cast your vote for a presidential nominee in either party’s primary (but not both).
However, both major parties in Colorado still use caucus systems to nominate non-presidential candidates for local, state and national offices to the general election ballot.

Both parties’ precinct caucuses take place March 7 in neighborhoods across the state.

“By having [caucus] in the middle of the day, on a Saturday, we’re really hoping to see a lot more people coming out,” says Judi Ingelido, House District 18 chair for the El Paso County Democratic Party. She notes that in previous years, having the caucus on a weeknight may have discouraged turnout if the weather was bad or if people weren’t comfortable driving at night.

At your precinct caucus, you can get to know which non-presidential candidates your neighbors support, and participate in party politics at the grassroots level.

“The first time through it can be very confusing, but it is so exciting to be part of a precinct caucus,” says Kay Rendleman, former chair of the El Paso County Republican Party. “It’s neighbors sitting around, you’re talking about the different candidates and what you think about them, you’re talking solutions, what the party platform should be... and it’s what our Founding Fathers kind of set up originally.”

Colorado law gives non-presidential candidates two separate paths to the ballot: They can either win a certain percentage of delegates at assembly (through the caucus system), or gather enough petition signatures to automatically be placed on the ballot.

You don’t have to be a politician to become a delegate for a major party. But becoming a delegate — or even having a say in who becomes a delegate — is one of the easiest ways to have an impact in local, state or national government without working in politics full time.

Interested in caucusing this election year? We broke it down step-by-step.

1) First of all, you have to register as a Democrat or a Republican by Feb. 14 to participate in the major parties’ precinct caucuses. Once you’ve done that, visit govotecolorado.org to find your precinct number.

Then, it’s a matter of looking up the location of your precinct caucus. Democrats can go to coloradodems.org/2020-caucus-locations and Republicans visit caucus.cologop.org.

2) Show up at the listed caucus location March 7. At the precinct caucus, voters will elect a precinct leader and delegates to the county assembly. If you’re interested in becoming a delegate, this may mean giving a speech for the candidate you support.

Rendleman encourages people to come to the caucus, even if they don’t know much about how it works. Hearing others tell personal stories about the candidates they support, she says, “gives a really unique perspective — rather than, you know, the letters you receive in the mail and that kind of stuff that’s very canned.”

Even if you’re not sure who to vote for and don’t want to be a delegate, the caucus can be a great place to learn about the candidates running for office so you know who to vote for in the June primary, Ingelido says.

“You’re meeting with people in your neighborhood and hearing them — I mean, they’re going to have a chance to talk about why they’re for [John] Hickenlooper or [Stephany Rose] Spaulding or [Andrew] Romanoff,” she says, referring to Democrats vying for U.S. Senate. “So if you’re undecided... well, come and listen to your neighbors talk about the candidates and help you make that decision.”

3) The next level is the county assembly, which is March 28 for both major parties in El Paso County. Precincts send their delegates here to have a say in county-level races.

At county assembly, the party candidates running to be the Democratic or Republican nominee in countywide offices or to represent a state House or Senate district that is entirely within El Paso County will be selected based on delegate votes — unless they decided to petition onto the ballot instead. This year, county-level races include:

County Commissioner Districts 2, 3 and 4 (all currently held by Republicans)
State House Districts 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 and 21 (six held by Republicans, two —Districts 17 and 18 — by Democrats)
State Senate Districts 10 and 12 (both held by Republicans)

4) From there, it’s time for the multi-county legislative and judicial district assemblies. Colorado’s 4th Judicial District includes El Paso and Teller counties, and the district attorney seat is up for election.

There will also be Democratic and Republican assemblies for U.S. Congressional District 5, which is currently represented by Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn and includes El Paso, Park, Teller, Fremont and Chaffee counties. Multi-county assemblies are held within the first few weeks of April.

5) On April 18, each party holds a state assembly to determine who’s on the primary ballot for the statewide races. Each candidate needs a certain percentage of delegates to get on the ballot, unless they petitioned on. The key statewide race to watch this year is the U.S. Senate race for Republican Sen. Cory Gardner’s seat, as the governor's seat and other state offices won’t be up for election.

6) As for the presidential primary, 2020 marks the first year Colorado’s will take place on March 3, known as “Super Tuesday.” Thirteen other states will also hold primaries that day. You don’t have to attend a caucus to vote for a presidential nominee — in fact, you don’t even need to be registered to a specific party. As an independent, you can vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary. (Visit govotecolorado.org to make sure your voter registration is up-to-date.)

However, The Colorado Sun reports that it will be possible for a candidate to win the popular vote but still lose the primary election in Colorado. That’s because there are 67 Democratic delegates to be allocated, and just 23 will be allocated based on the results of the statewide election. The remaining 34 are decided based on congressional district results.

7) June 30 is primary election day for non-presidential races, when all Colorado voters get to choose who the nominees will be for one of the two major parties (if more than one person drew enough delegate votes or signatures to get on the ballot).

8) On Nov. 3, the winners of those primaries will face off on Election Day. Happy voting!

Correction: The online version of this article has been updated to include the County Commissioner District 2 race.

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