To caucus or not to caucus 

City Sage

Do you think that Colorado is a reasonably progressive state, with both major parties devoted to transparent, accessible nominating procedures? Or do you think that entrenched ideologues have gamed an archaic system, leaving moderates and independents out in the cold?

Opinions may vary, but I'd guess Vladimir Putin would be very comfortable with our system — particularly if he were a Republican candidate.

Colorado state law sets forth the process for major parties to select candidates for a primary. It begins with precinct caucuses, open to anyone registered as a party member for at least two months, and a precinct resident for 30 days. At each caucus, delegates are elected to attend the county assembly, where they vote on candidates for local office. Candidates with at least 30 percent of that vote appear on the primary ballot. Those with between 10 and 30 percent may petition on, as may candidates who bypass the process entirely.

While the number of signatures required to petition varies with the office, it's a cumbersome, expensive process. Moreover, candidates who sidestep the caucus system risk being characterized as disloyal.

In 2002, a nonpartisan ballot initiative to abolish the caucus/assembly structure appeared on the November ballot. In a rare display of unanimity, activists from both parties opposed the measure. Perhaps assuming that such opposition meant the initiative was flawed, voters rejected it by a 60-40 margin.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, the Republican caucuses attracted more attention than usual, as Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum vied for the GOP nod. All caucus attendees participated in a nonbinding statewide presidential preference poll.

But only 66,027 Republicans attended the caucuses, just 6.7 percent of active GOP voters. Santorum won, with 40.3 percent (26,614) followed by Romney with 34.8 percent (23,012). Santorum trumpeted his "victory," though a mere 2.7 percent of registered Republicans had supported him.

Tough shit, you might argue. He won fair and square, and if 93 percent of Republican voters didn't show up at the caucuses, that's their problem.

Why didn't they show? It may be because the process is opaque, insider-driven and unfriendly to newcomers. Caucuses take place on the first Tuesday in March. To attend, you have to go on your county party website to find where your caucus will be held. As a caucus newcomer, your chances of being selected as an assembly delegate or precinct chair are negligible.

As Pam Zubeck pointed out in last week's Indy (tiny.cc/9uonbx), this year's process promises to be a surreal goat rope. Thanks to the Republican primary being moved from August to June, and a state requirement that primary petitions be submitted 85 days before the election, it will be virtually impossible for candidates who come up short at the assembly to petition onto the ballot, unless they gather signatures in advance.

Suppose the voters had chosen to eliminate the caucus/assembly system. Would things be better? Probably not. Noisy, well-financed candidates with name recognition such as Tom Tancredo would prevail over newcomers such as Greg Brophy. Zealous primary voters in each party might match doctrinaire lib'ruls against conservative wingnuts, shutting out moderates.

By contrast, party insiders learn from experience. Like hard-headed dogs, they eventually understand that good behavior is rewarded. Good dogs get treats; bad dogs get nothing. Even the most obdurate members of the political class tire of losing. That's why insiders of each party backed moderate gubernatorial candidates Bill Owens, Bill Ritter and John Hickenlooper.

The present system is absurd, rigged and unfair — but that's politics. We can take comfort in the fact that our sly politicians aren't like their counterparts in Illinois and New Jersey. They don't sell appointments to the U.S. Senate or take revenge on their foes by causing three-day traffic jams.

And if they game the system, that's to be expected. If you want to make sure your dog can't get out of the yard, get rid of the dog. But if you like all the party power being in just a few radical hands, and don't want anybody messin' with the system, just call Putin. He'll know what to do.



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