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Proposed change to Colorado GOP bylaws would make it easier to block unaffiliated primary voters

Closing Republican primaries has been a major objective of the far right
The Colorado GOP’s statewide assembly is held at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs in 2022. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun file)

The Colorado GOP’s state central committee is scheduled next month to consider a change to the party’s bylaws that would make it easier for Republicans to block unaffiliated voters from participating in their primaries, a major objective of the far right.

The amendment would make a nonvote by a member of the central committee an automatic “yes” vote on any action that requires the approval of at least 70% of the committee’s support to pass.

Under Proposition 108, the 2016 ballot measure letting unaffiliated voters cast ballots in partisan primaries, the Colorado Democratic and Republican parties can opt out of the change if 75% of their respective central committees agree to do so.

A GOP effort to block unaffiliated voters from the 2022 primaries was soundly rejected by the Republican State Central Committee. A subsequent federal lawsuit also failed.

But far-right Republicans are still pushing to prevent unaffiliated voters – who make up the largest share of Colorado’s electorate – from weighing in on GOP primaries. Proponents of opting out are worried that Democrats are registered as unaffiliated voters and casting ballots for weaker candidates in GOP primaries.

Colorado GOP Chairman Dave Williams, whose campaign to lead the party earlier this year hinged largely on his support of blocking unaffiliated voters from participating in Republican primaries, said he hasn’t taken a position on the amendment.

“This is a clever attempt to make an impossible 75% threshold be possible to meet,” Williams told The Colorado Sun. “I won’t be advocating from the chairman’s podium. That’s not appropriate.”

Dave Williams speaks during a Republican state central meeting on March 11 in Loveland where elections for a chairman, vice chairman and secretary of the Colorado GOP were conducted. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America file)

Williams said the proposal was drafted by Chuck Bonniwell, a conservative commentator, and that as of Thursday evening it hadn’t been vetted by the party’s bylaws committee.

Bonniwell told The Sun the 75% threshold is effectively impossible to meet because most members of the central committee don’t show up for meetings. He said Proposition 108 was written to prevent a party from opting out and that he’s simply trying to level the playing field.

To pass, the amendment needs the support of two-thirds of the central committee members who gather Aug. 5 in Castle Rock, where the party will also select a new vice chairperson. Priscilla Rahn, who was reelected to the position earlier this year, resigned from her post last month to run for a seat on the Douglas County Commission.

Bonniwell said he doesn’t know if he can meet the two-thirds threshold, but he’s going to lobby central committee members in the coming weeks to support his proposed change.

“It’s gonna be a challenge,” he said. “But I thought I’d give everybody the opportunity.”

The opt-out vote must happen by Oct. 1, per Proposition 108.

If the GOP opts out of the state primary, general election nominees would instead be selected through the caucus and assembly process by a relatively small number of Republicans. That would leave hundreds of thousands of party members out of the process and likely lead to more partisan candidates. Opting out would also prevent candidates from gathering signatures to get on the ballot.

More than 434,000 Republicans and 231,000 unaffiliated voters cast ballots in the 2022 GOP primary. In some counties, more unaffiliated voters cast Republican primary ballots than registered Republicans.

The unaffiliated participation in 2022 was up considerably from 2020 and 2018, the first year unaffiliated voters were allowed to cast ballots in Colorado’s partisan primaries.

Both Democrats and Republicans have been steadily losing members as voters switch to unaffiliated. At the end of June, 47% of voters were registered unaffiliated, 27% were Democrats and 24% were Republicans.

While opting out has been an objective of the far right, more moderate Republicans have warned that it could spell further disaster for the Colorado GOP by alienating unaffiliated voters.

Former state Rep. Ron Hanks, who lost the GOP U.S. Senate primary in 2022, and Colorado GOP Secretary Anna Ferguson recently attended a Fremont County Central Committee meeting and urged members to support opting out of the primary, Fremont County Clerk Justin Grantham said.

Hanks made the ballot through the caucus and assembly process and lost in the primary to Joe O’Dea, a Denver construction company owner who gathered signatures to make the ballot.

Grantham, a Republican, said he worries about the consequences of cutting so many party members out of primary voting. Only about 3,700 delegates attended the 2022 GOP state assembly to select statewide candidates, with as few as about 400 people participating in some of the congressional assemblies.

Bonniwell said he plans to propose an amendment at the state central committee’s meeting in September that would let all registered Republicans vote at a special convention on who should be the party’s general election candidate.

“I really want all Republicans to vote in the primary,” he said. “I just don’t want another primary in which Democrats go unaffiliated and unaffiliateds dominate the election. I believe in the caucus system, but (there are) too limited a number of people who go there.”

Voters drop off primary ballots on June 28, 2022, at Westminster Motor Vehicle in Adams County. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America file)

Former state Sen. Kevin Lundberg wrote in a recent email newsletter to supporters that the GOP has raised about $12,000 of the $50,000 it says it needs to file another lawsuit challenging unaffiliated voters’ ability to participate in partisan primaries. He’s spearheading the potential legal challenge on behalf of the party, with John Eastman expected to be part of the lawsuit, Williams told conservative talk show host George Brauchler.

Eastman, a former University of Colorado visiting scholar and lawyer for President Donald Trump, represented a group of Republicans in the failed lawsuit last year seeking to block unaffiliated voters from Colorado’s 2022 primaries. California is considering disbarring Eastman for his role in Trump’s attempts to overturn the results in the 2020 election.

The central committee will also consider an amendment at its Aug. 5 meeting that would change how its delegates to the Republican National Committee convention are selected and operate.

The proposed change is an attempt to make Republican presidential candidates pay closer attention to Colorado next year, Williams said, given that the Centennial State will be one of several states holding their primary on Super Tuesday, March 5, 2024.

Under the amendment, any GOP presidential candidate who wins more than 20% of the primary vote in Colorado could select their own delegates from the state to attend the RNC convention. Additionally, the amendment would bind Colorado’s delegates to support their assigned presidential candidate through at least two rounds of voting at the RNC convention, helping candidates and campaigns avoid the messiness of a potential convention floor fight.

“That gives the campaigns, the candidates peace of mind that what they get in Colorado they can keep,” Williams said.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.