May 2024

Colorado’s Primary Problem: How partisan primaries limit voter choice, power, and representation in the Centennial State

A new report from the Unite America Institute examines how partisan primaries limit voter choice, power, and representation for Colorado voters. Despite the fact that Colorado has been a leader in election modernization, the state’s use of partisan primaries and plurality-winner elections still fuels political division and dysfunction. 

This is Colorado’s Primary Problem: Primary elections have become frequently decisive due to low rates of general election competition, but very few voters actually participate in primaries, which distorts representation. The report highlights the implications and impact of the state’s Primary Problem through five case studies, and it concludes by suggesting that Colorado can solve its Primary Problem by implementing nonpartisan primaries.

Below is the report’s executive summary. Read the full report here.

Very few voters effectively choose most of the state’s congressional and state legislative leaders. In 2022:

  • Geographic self-sorting has led to 75% of congressional seats and 83% of state house seats being so heavily Democratic or Republican (“safe”) that the dominant party’s primary election is the only consequential election. Fewer than 25% of eligible Coloradans turned out in partisan primaries. 
  • These two factors illustrate why a small minority of  Coloradans effectively choose their representatives. Only voters who participate in the decisive races — nearly always dominant-party primaries in safe districts — cast meaningful votes. Consequently, a mere 13% of eligible voters effectively determined the composition of the state house, while 18% decided the state’s eight-member U.S. House delegation.

Electoral competition in Colorado is rare. Voters often lack meaningful choice on their ballot when deciding who represents them. 

  • During the 2012-2020 redistricting cycle, more than half of the state's voters (those in five of the seven congressional districts) never had the opportunity to vote in a competitive general election. In these districts, the partisan primary was the decisive contest, effectively silencing general election voters.
  • In 2022, three of six safe congressional districts only had one candidate on the ballot in the dominant party’s primary, denying an estimated 1.7 million Colorado voters meaningful choice in their representation in Washington, D.C. 
  • In 2022, 54 out of 65 state house seats were effectively decided in primaries, and 42 of those had only one candidate running in the dominant party primary. This denied an estimated 2.7 million Colorado voters meaningful choice in their representation in Denver. 
  • In the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, the last two in which the entire state senate was elected under the same district boundaries, primaries effectively determined the winners in 31 out of 35 seats. Of those 31 seats, 25 had only a single candidate running in the dominant party's primary.

Partisan primaries fuel political division and dysfunction in Colorado. 

  • With little competition in the general election, most leaders' only threat to reelection is the potential of being “primaried” by a candidate to their ideological extreme. 
  • A small, often unrepresentative subset of voters wields disproportionate influence over election results. This dynamic encourages elected officials to pander to their party's base rather than serving the interests of their entire constituency.
  • At the state legislative level, the result is that Colorado is the most polarized state legislature in the country. The Primary Problem has likely contributed to recent breakdowns in bipartisan and intra-party compromise in the legislature.
  •  At the federal level, the ability to primary incumbents enabled Rep. Lauren Boebert (R) to successfully challenge incumbent Rep. Scott Tipton (R) in 2020. 

Nonpartisan primaries can solve Colorado’s Primary Problem. 

  • States have the autonomy to adopt nonpartisan primaries, as exemplified by Alaska, California, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Washington. In a nonpartisan primary, all voters participate in a single primary featuring candidates from all parties on the same ballot. The candidates receiving the most votes advance to the general election, where a candidate must secure a majority of the vote to be elected.
  • By granting all voters a meaningful voice, nonpartisan primaries tend to generate higher participation rates compared to traditional partisan primaries. Moreover, the outcomes of nonpartisan primaries are more likely to be representative of the entire electorate rather than just a small subset of partisan voters. Lastly, nonpartisan primaries create incentives for elected officials to govern in a more collaborative and consensus-oriented manner.
  • Colorado has a history of adopting election reforms that put voters first, including open partisan primaries, a full vote by mail system, and independent redistricting commissions. In 2016, Propositions 107 and 108 enfranchised the state’s independents in primary elections — the largest bloc of voters in the state (48%). This has resulted in hundreds of thousands of independents participating in primaries in each of the last three election cycles.
  • In a May 2023 statewide poll of Colorado voters, nearly 60% said that the current election system “needs improvement,” including majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

Other research