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Montezuma County preps for primaries with unaffiliated voters

Change brings higher cost, might bring higher turnout

After a high turnout for the municipal elections on April 3, Montezuma County is preparing for the first primary in which more than 6,000 unaffiliated voters may vote.

More Cortez and Dolores voters participated in the municipal elections than in recent years, particularly in Dolores, where the turnout was almost twice as high as in 2016. On June 26, the Republican and Democrat primaries could see another high turnout as the county’s second-largest group of registered voters gets to participate for the first time.

It will be Colorado’s first primary election since Proposition 108 passed in 2016, allowing registered voters to participate in a primary without affiliating with a major party. The county has 8,398 registered Republicans, 6,733 registered unaffiliated and 4,239 Democrats.

Unaffiliated voters may go to the Colorado Secretary of State website to request a Republican or Democrat ballot. Those who don’t choose a primary in advance will receive two ballots in the mail, one for both major parties. Each voter can complete just one ballot, or neither vote will be counted. Registered Republican and Democrat voters will receive one primary ballot in the mail as usual.

The ballots will cost voters about 70 cents to mail in.

According to Montezuma County Clerk Kim Percell, an average of 4,512 county residents voted in primary elections in the past four years.

Danny Wilkin, chairman of the Montezuma County Republicans, said he’s excited for unaffiliated voters to participate.

“It will definitely bring out more voters,” he said. “It doesn’t concern me too much, because I think a lot of the independents in Montezuma County lean conservative.”

He said the local Republican office will target unaffiliated voters with door-knocking campaigns and other events leading up to the primary.

Alan Klein, co-chair of the Montezuma County Democrats, said the group doesn’t plan to target unaffiliated voters specifically, but he expects many of them to participate in his party’s primary. He pointed out the Democrat ballot will include at least three candidates for governor, including Cary Kennedy, who would become Colorado’s first female governor if elected.

“The Democrat races are more competitive,” he said, adding, “What excites voters more, having an impact on the state or the local elections? It’ll be interesting to see.”

Percell said it costs the county 60 cents to $1 to mail a primary ballot, and $1 to $2 to print one. In addition to the cost of mailing more ballots to unaffiliated voters, this year’s ballots will include color coding to help election judges sort them, which Percell said will increase printing costs. The Colorado Secretary of State doesn’t reimburse local governments for the cost of primary elections, so the entire cost will be covered by the county.

But Percell said the county government hasn’t increased its election budget for this year.

“We have looked in to (sic) ... cutting or not moving forward with other election projects like additional county drop boxes,” she said in an email on Wednesday. “These projects will be placed on hold for now.”

Each major party has one candidate running for a seat on the Montezuma County Board of Commissioners this year: Republican Jim Candelaria and Democrat Mary Beth McAfee. Steve Chappell plans to run as an unaffiliated candidate. Unaffiliated candidates have been successful in the past few Montezuma County elections. Commissioners Larry Don Suckla and Keenan Ertel were re-elected after running unaffiliated in 2016, although Ertel ran as a Republican for his first term.

Statewide primaries will be more hotly contested. As of Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans had multiple candidates vying for the governor, secretary of state and treasurer positions. The final list of candidates for both primaries is set to be released next week.

The county will begin mailing ballots to primary voters on June 4, Percell said. The primaries will be held by mail-in ballot on June 26.

Municipal elections turnout

Cortez and Dolores saw high turnouts in municipal elections this year. In Cortez, 1,502 voters turned out to elect five candidates to the City Council and decide on whether to extend and reduce a sales tax that funds the Cortez Recreation Center. That was about an 8 percent increase from the 2016 election, in which City Clerk Linda Smith said 1,385 people voted.

“I think people are more interested in what’s happening in the municipal government,” Smith said. “I think the Rec Center sales tax was of interest to a lot of people.”

Ballot Question 2A, which will reduce the Recreation Center tax from 0.55 percent to 0.35 percent starting in 2021, passed 1,009 to 465.

Dolores saw an even more dramatic increase voter turnout, with 279 people participating this year compared with 156 in the 2016 election, a 79 percent increase. Town Clerk Lana Hancock said she believed the number of Town Board candidates – 11 running for four trustee positions, and two running for mayor – created more interest among residents. The election also took place after several months of controversy over the previous board’s decision to dismantle the playground at Joe Rowell Park, which drew many town residents to crowded board meetings.

In Mancos, where five candidates ran for four Town Board positions, only 220 people voted this year, compared with 266 in 2016’s uncontested election, a 17 percent decrease.

Montezuma County Clerk Kim Percell said the rise in voter participation didn’t correspond to a rise in voter registrations. Countywide, only 34 people registered to vote for the first time in 2018.

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