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Caucuses limit voter participation

Unprecedented numbers of voters showed up at both the Democratic and Republican caucus meetings last week in Aspen, and local party chiefs were rightly thrilled about the turnout.

Democrats had to cram between 500 and 600 people into the Rio Grande meeting room, and there’s no way to know how many others might have participated if the place weren’t so overstuffed.

Republicans similarly were startled by the 100-plus members of their party who participated. Republicans aren’t as numerous in Pitkin County as Democrats, but interest clearly ran high on both sides of the political aisle ” and more participation in politics is a good thing for all concerned.

The problem, as we see it, is that thousands more might have helped to choose Colorado’s Republican and Democratic nominees for president if the state had held presidential primary elections instead of caucuses. Some 498 people cast votes in the Democratic caucus and 115 at the Republican caucus, but both parties would have counted thousands of votes if they’d held primaries.

This decision ” how to select a political party’s nominee for U.S. president ” is up to the parties themselves; this is not an issue that Coloradans en masse can put on a statewide ballot. But we would urge the parties, for simple reasons of inclusiveness and broader participation, to switch to primaries.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a party caucus. Traditionally, it’s a venue for party members to gather, debate, listen, cajole and persuade each other ” not only to choose candidates, but to decide elements of the party platform and make other decisions. It’s an example of grassroots democracy, but we believe it has become obsolete, at least for purposes of choosing a presidential nominee.

Especially in an election year when both parties have had hotly contested races for their respective nominations, the political parties should invite as many Coloradans as possible to participate.

The caucus system suits the outgoing, outspoken party members who have the time to attend a meeting and aren’t afraid to voice their views in front of an audience. But what of all the other voters who cannot make it to the meeting or aren’t comfortable standing up and voicing their support for Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton?

On the Democratic side, caucus attendees rendered a clear preference for Barack Obama over Clinton, but Republicans were evenly split between Romney and John McCain. Caucuses all over the country yielded unclear results like this one, but the verdicts were crystal-clear when voters were allowed to weigh in. (Yes, elections have had their problems, but fundamentally they are the right way to make political decisions.)

There’s reason for all of us to be optimistic about the huge turnout at both of Pitkin County’s Feb. 5 party caucuses. But the best way to leverage this apparent surge of political interest is to throw the whole thing into the open ” with primary elections for both major Colorado political parties.


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