Voter registration: GOP sinks, unaffiliated soars 

Not seeing red

Republicans have lost ground and unaffiliated voting rolls have boomed since the 2016 presidential election, leading political experts to speculate that GOP voters feel less comfortable being associated with President Donald Trump.

The number of active registered Republican voters dropped by 7.3 percent statewide from November 2016 to May 1, 2020, Colorado Secretary of State records show.

The Republican rolls in bright red El Paso County took a 5.6 percent dive, while Democrats gained 1 percent.

It’s worth noting that Democrat active voters statewide now outnumber Republicans by 82,213. In 2016, the edge was only about 7,000.

That change appears to be due more to defection of Republicans than to gains by Democrats, whose number actually dropped by a tiny bit (879 voters) since the last presidential contest.

A number of changes have brought about the shift, including Colorado’s open primary law allowing unaffiliated voters to choose whether to vote Republican or Democrat in primary elections, and young voters who opt to steer clear of party affiliations.

  • Secretary of State’s voter registration records

The decline in registered Republicans and the trend of unaffiliated voters leaning left could stem directly from Trump, political pundits say.

“These numbers surprise me not at all,” Eric Sondermann, a political and public policy consultant, tells the Indy via email. “The appeal of affiliating with either party continues to wane. For the GOP, Trump is like a magnet. He attracts many Republicans but also repels some. Given that the Trump brand and the Republican brand are now synonymous, if you’re one of those off-put by Trump, there is no incentive to remain in the party.

“The outsized drop-off in Republican registration is but one more indicator of the GOP’s problems in Colorado,” Sondermann adds. “The more it becomes Trump’s party, the less attractive it is to a majority of the state. And El Paso County, while still solidly red save for a few areas, is not immune from this trend.”

Sondermann describes the Democratic Party as “less cleaved,” but it runs the risk of driving away some moderates and social conservatives as it tilts further to the left.

“The Republican party is in a transition in which their most visible officeholder is Trump,” Floyd Ciruli, political analyst and pollster in the Denver area, tells the Indy. “He’s essentially repositioning the party, both based on his personality and the issues he emphasizes, and the fundamental base of the party is less the party we’ve known for many, many years as kind of a Main Street, small business party that I think was so dominant in Colorado Springs.”

While the open primary has caused more people to ditch the parties, Ciruli notes, “The fact that it is having a bigger impact on Republicans is a sign that the party is in transition. I think just being able to say, ‘I’m an independent’ is more important today to more moderate Republicans than it was in the past.”

Moreover, Ciruli says, polling data shows that more unaffiliated voters ask for Democratic than Republican ballots at primary elections. In the 2018 gubernatorial election, when Democrat Jared Polis won his primary and Walker Stapleton prevailed on the GOP side, unaffiliated voters sought Democrat ballots over Republican at a rate of two to one, he says.

And since the unaffiliated numbers have grown from about a third of Colorado voters to 40 percent, it’s possible Democrats can expect a growing number to vote their way, he says. Data shows unaffiliated ranks in El Paso County ballooned by a whopping 24 percent since November 2016 and by 21.3 percent statewide. There’s another factor at play as well, Ciruli says.

“A lot of young, educated individuals who are more liberal tend to register unaffiliated.”

In fact, that’s one of three reasons for the change in party registration, according to Daniel Cole, executive director of the Colorado Senate Majority Fund and a statewide political consultant based in Colorado Springs.

First, the open primary has afforded unaffiliated voters the privilege of voting either the Republican or Democratic primary election ticket without declaring for either party, he says in an interview.

Second, “Younger people register unaffiliated at increasing rates,” Cole says, driven by the rise of Bernie Sanders, who’s an Independent, though he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in both 2016 and 2020.

“Once upon a time, it was thought being a Democrat was hip, and being a Republican was unhip,” Cole says. “But now [the belief is] all the cool kids are unaffiliated.”

Third, young people registering without a party affiliation will increase due to Senate Bill 235, adopted in 2019, which automatically registers everyone who gets a driver’s license in Colorado starting in April, Cole says.

“In fact, there’s no longer the option to affiliate with a party at the DMV [Division of Motor Vehicles] when they get a driver’s license for the first time,” he says, though voters have an option later to declare a party.

While Republicans have lost more than 7 percent of their numbers, Cole observes, “The two parties are holding more or less steady. The change has been in the unaffiliated column. It’s not that Republicans are jumping ship.”

Cole says in some state Senate districts, Republicans are gaining ground. And, as Cole notes, “Statewide, the numbers are relevant if you’re running statewide, but if you’re running in a district, the statewide numbers become academic.”

Vickie Tonkins, chair of the El Paso County GOP, says in an email that it’s worth noting that “many Republicans left to be Unaffiliated because they wanted to have more choice and not receive all the political race mailers and phone calls.” She adds that in speaking with those former registered Republicans, they tell her they still vote Republican.

El Paso County Democratic Party Chair Electra Johnson explains the shift in voter registration this way: “There are more and more people no longer willing to toe the line for the Trump agenda. People are sick of ugly partisan politics.”

Of course, where voter registrations stand today could vastly change before the Nov. 3 election.

Roughly 70 voter registration drives have been approved by the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. At least six of those bear the Democrat label, including the El Paso County Democratic Party and El Paso County Young Democrats.

Only one bears a GOP label, the Colorado Republican Committee. Tonkins says the local party is working on voter registration with the Trump Campaign.

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