Coloradans want candidates to focus on good government and democracy — but that can mean many things

A lot of Coloradans are worried about our democracy. And they want candidates to pay attention to it, too.

That is the message that comes through loud and clear from more than 4,500 responses to the Voter Voices survey that The Denver Post and dozens of other newsrooms around Colorado are circulating during this election year, as of last week. The effort has been coordinated by the Colorado News Collaborative.

“Democracy/Good government” was the top issue for voters who identified as moderate or liberal. For conservatives, it landed further down — a distant third after immigration and cost of living.

But that simple selection covers a wide array of concerns, from money in politics to threats to personal liberties to politicians more worried about their careers than their constituents.

Many voters expressed frustration that the current uncompromising tone of politics has made it increasingly impossible for the government — especially the federal government — to tackle what they see as the country’s biggest problems. They said they want candidates to focus on the issues, instead of attacks, and to show they’re willing to work with the other side.

Deborah Shaffer of Cedaredge, in Delta County on the Western Slope, wrote that she wants candidates to talk about “how they will move our country back to a centrist democracy and return to a spirit of compromise and cooperation so that the important issues of reasonable immigration, healthcare, fiscal responsibility, and the climate can be addressed.”

In an interview, Shaffer said she was disheartened; it had been a while since she felt like her federal votes were for a candidate she liked, instead of against one she feared.

“I’m going to be very honest and say, if I had my way, I would not vote for a single incumbent,” Shaffer said. “Not because I don’t think there are good people. I just think it isn’t working.”

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Among the nearly 500 Denver Post survey-takers reflected in the statewide results, 45% identified democracy and good government as their most important issue when they selected from among 13 categories. It was the top issue for 51% of self-identified moderates and nearly 48% of liberals, but only 12% of conservatives — a group for whom the highest-ranking issue was the economy/cost of living (31%) followed by immigration (nearly 28%).

Across the political spectrum, many respondents statewide said they just didn’t believe the people elected to represent them truly cared about their concerns. The disillusionment and frustration expressed by Coloradans echo national trends; in a poll by Pew Research last year, 85% of respondents said politicians don’t care what regular people think and 80% said they feel frustrated or angry with the government.

The Voter Voices survey is also capturing the fears many voters — especially those who identify as liberal — have that the political opposition has evolved into a democratic threat.

Melissa McInerney said she wanted to put climate change or health care or the environment at the top of her list of priorities, but for now, all those issues come second to her fears about what Republican control would mean for the federal government.

“There are so many other issues that I actually care about and I also want to see addressed, but they’re not going to mean a thing if we don’t vote for the right party and the right people,” said McInerney.

Some favor more limited government

For their part, many respondents who identified themselves as conservative cast good government as limited government — writing that candidates should focus on what they’ll do to uphold the Constitution, especially the First and Second Amendments.

“How they will give back freedoms to the people instead of taking it,” is what Michael Ruff of Eaton, a town in Weld County, wants to hear from anyone seeking his vote. “The candidates are there to serve the people of Colorado, not to enact ‘feel good laws’ that usually have no effect, but instead, put over-reaching burdens and penalties on Citizens.”

Pessimism about the current political situation has Mike Orr of southwest Denver looking for big changes. He’d like to see much tougher rules for money in politics and for the country to move toward ranked-choice voting.

“The idea that someone who would otherwise have no shot at being in office could have a shot, and especially if that person maybe has somewhat more moderate views or is from some other party than Republicans and Democrats, that’s huge to me,” said Orr.

Orr was one of nearly a dozen people in the survey who specifically brought up ranked-choice voting (RCV), an approach in which all candidates appear on the primary ballot, regardless of party, and voters rank them by preference. Colorado allows local governments to adopt RCV for their elections, and there is a move afoot to ask voters to expand the practice to state elections. Currently, only two states — Alaska and Maine — use RCV statewide.

In addition to ranked-choice voting, respondents across the political spectrum suggested term limits would help improve federal politics. That’s an idea the state has already embraced; most state-level officials may serve no more than eight years in office.

Dissatisfaction has some voters considering leaving the major parties behind this year — either for a third party or an independent candidate like Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Valerie LeGore in Routt County said she feels like the major parties and their candidates aren’t respecting voters.

“We need to up the quality of the conversation, rather than one candidate reading off the cue cards and another one calling people names,” said LeGore. “We need to be really focused on the meat of the issues and the facts.”

For LeGore, good government starts with stringent election policies. A long-serving election judge, she believes county clerks do their best with the things that are within their control. But she distrusts many of Colorado’s election innovations, like universal mail ballots and automatic voter registration.

She’d like to see the state move back to mostly in-person voting, with strict ID requirements.

“We should be using the standards that we do for flying on airplanes and things like that,” said LeGore, “making sure people really are who they say they are.”

Without those policies in place, she feels like there’s an asterisk on the results of every election.

Confidence in elections

When it comes to confidence in elections, the Voter Voices survey reflects national trends. Only 11% of conservatives who filled out the survey said they are fully confident the election will be conducted fairly across the country.

In contrast, just over 50% of liberals and moderates said they have faith in the national election.

Views are more positive across the board when it comes to Colorado’s handling of the vote. About 90% of liberals, 80% of moderates and 40% of conservatives said they fully trust votes will be counted fairly in their community.

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While the survey is not a scientific poll, what it does make clear is that when voters say they want candidates to focus on democracy and good government, what they really mean spans the gamut of views and concerns.

But it also lays bare a common thread — that they’re worried the nation’s current political leaders are failing to meet the challenges of the moment.

Shaffer, the Cedaredge voter who said that if she had her way she wouldn’t vote for any incumbent, said she’s not a very emotional person. But reflecting on the current political moment brings her to the verge of tears. At 74, her fears are really for the coming generations.

“I just feel so bad for people who are looking at this and saying, ‘Well, what’s my life going to be like under these circumstances?’ ” she said. “I do believe in the ability of humanity to ultimately do the right thing. I just feel that right now it’s looking dim instead of hopeful.”

Tina Griego is the managing editor of the Colorado News Collaborative, which is leading the Voter Voices project. Megan Verlee is the public affairs editor at Colorado Public Radio, the project’s lead partner.  

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