With a handful of closely contested primary races on Colorado’s June 28 primary ballot, unaffiliated voters are poised to give Republicans their first statewide turnout advantage since 2016, data released by state elections officials shows.
As of Friday, 273,555 Coloradans had voted in the GOP primary election through their mail-in ballot or in-person voting, according to preliminary numbers from the Colorado secretary of state’s office. That’s a higher total than the 255,830 returned Democratic ballots, and represents a Republican turnout of about 28.6% compared to 23.9% on the Democratic side.
Barring a drastic surge in Democratic returns, Colorado Republicans are on track to record a higher primary turnout in an even-year election for the first time in six years. Colorado held its 2016 presidential caucuses in March before voters weighed in on down-ballot state and congressional races in a June primary, with the GOP’s U.S. Senate primary the only contested statewide race.
It’s a similar situation in 2022: None of the five Colorado Democrats holding statewide office faces even a single primary challenger in their reelection campaign, while multiple Republican candidates are battling it out in the races for governor, U.S. Senate and secretary of state, along with several contested House primaries.
In each of the last three election cycles, the party boasting the higher ballot-return percentage in Colorado’s June primary has sustained that turnout advantage in the general election in the fall, and after lagging behind Republicans in 2016, Democrats bested the GOP in 2018 and 2020. Detailed ballot return data wasn’t released during Colorado’s first statewide primary using the mail-in ballot system in 2014.
This year’s preliminary ballot-return data show that unaffiliated voters are largely responsible for the GOP’s turnout edge so far. Nearly 30% of the Republican primary ballots returned as of June 24 were cast by voters not affiliated with any party – double the number reported at the same point prior to the state's previous midterm primary election in 2018. Colorado law allows the state’s 1.7 million unaffiliated voters – a larger group than either its 1.1 million active registered Democrats or its 956,904 registered Republicans – to vote in either party’s primary election in a given year, but not both.
In the 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses much of Colorado’s Western Slope, far-right Rep. Lauren Boebert is favored to win reelection but faces a GOP primary challenger in state Sen. Don Coram of Montrose.
With Tuesday’s primary likely representing the best shot of unseating Boebert, nearly 4,000 registered Democrats in the 3rd District have changed their registrations to unaffiliated since the beginning of the year, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. And amid pleas from centrist pundits for unaffiliated voters to cast a ballot in the GOP primary, “where their voice will be the loudest in denouncing radicalism,” there are signs the gambit has picked up steam in the 3rd District.
Unaffiliated voters in Mesa County, the district’s largest population center, have returned Republican ballots at nearly quadruple the statewide rate, and the data show similar patterns in the district's La Plata, Delta, Montrose and Gunnison counties.
Citing the possibility of such efforts by Democrats, several far-right Colorado Republicans filed a lawsuit earlier this year challenging the state's open-primary system, arguing the party has a right to choose its candidates “without interference by those who are not members of the party and have chosen not to affiliate with the party.” A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in April.
Other contested Republican primaries include matchups between former Parker mayor Greg Lopez and University of Colorado Regent-at-Large Heidi Ganahl in the governor’s race, and state Rep. Ron Hanks and Denver construction executive Joe O’Dea for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate. In the race for secretary of state, indicted Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters, an election conspiracist, faces former Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder Pam Anderson and nonprofit executive Mike O’Donnell.
Incumbent Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, said Friday that Coloradans should rely on trusted sources like state and county websites for timely and accurate elections-night reporting. The ballot return totals released by county clerks and Griswold’s office in the run-up to election night are only raw counts of processed ballots, not election results.
“It’s important to remember that election night results are never final results in Colorado. After election day, military and oversees voters return their ballots, signature discrepancies can be fixed, and bipartisan audits are conducted to determine statistical confidence in the results,” Griswold said in a statement. “While county clerks begin to process ballots prior to election day, which allows for a high percentage of results to be reported on election night, there is quite a bit of activity that occurs after election day.”