How Pitkin County Votes - by Dwight Shellman
Pitkin County elects its county officials differently than every other county in Colorado. This is possible because the Colorado Constitution and state statutes permit the registered electors of each county to adopt a home rule charter (HRC) setting forth the qualifications of county officers and the manner in which they are elected (1). Pitkin County’s Home Rule Charter, first adopted in 1978, provides equality of access to the primary election ballot by all candidates regardless of their political party affiliation, while preserving each candidate’s ability to seek the designation of his or her political party if he or she chooses to do so (2). The HRC requires candidates who desire such political party designation to obtain it in the manner required by state law and the rules of the particular party in question (3). Moreover, the HRC imposes campaign finance restrictions – on candidates for county offices, political committees that support or oppose them, and committees supporting or opposing issues or questions referred to the electorate by the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners - that are different from the campaign finance rules applicable to candidates for statewide and state district offices (4).
To understand how uniquely Pitkin County conducts elections for county offices, consider how primary elections are conducted elsewhere in Colorado. Generally speaking, in every other county in the state (5), candidates of the two major political parties ‐ the Democratic Party and the Republican Party – are designated for nomination on the primary election ballot by their respective parties, and then similarly affiliated voters vote for that party’s candidates in the primary election. As a result, only registered Democrats vote for Democratic candidates on the Democratic ballot, and only registered Republicans vote for Republican candidates on the Republican ballot. Voters affiliated with minor parties and unaffiliated voters are typically excluded from participating in primary elections in other parts of Colorado. The winner of the primary election for each major party is the party’s nominee, and those two candidates run against any unaffiliated or minor political party candidates for the same office in the general election the following November.
Not so in Pitkin County. While state law controls the manner in which the primary election is conducted for state and district offices, the HRC dictates the manner in which county officers are elected. In Pitkin County, separate primary election ballots typically are prepared for voters affiliated with the major political parties. In addition, a "nonpartisan" ballot is prepared for voters who are either unaffiliated or affiliated with political parties other than the major political parties. This is because the HRC states that all voters in Pitkin County are eligible to vote for all candidates for county office in the primary election, without regard to the voter's party affiliation or the candidate's party designation, if any. The candidates for elective office above the county level will be different on the Democratic and Republican ballots (because state law permits only voters affiliated with those parties to vote for those candidates), but all candidates who have filed the necessary petitions for county elective offices appear on the Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan primary ballots.
As an example, the Republican primary ballot in Pitkin County will list only the names of the candidates designated by the Republican Party for state and district offices, but will contain the names of all candidates for county office, without regard to their party affiliation or designation. That is to say, for county offices only, the Republican Party primary ballot will include the names of all candidates designated by the Republican Party, all candidates designated by the Democratic Party, all candidates who are not affiliated with a political party and all candidates who are affiliated with a political party but did not receive the party's designation. The same is true for the Democratic ballot, except that only candidates designated by the Democratic Party in accordance with state law and the rules of the party are listed for offices above the county level.
As noted, Pitkin County also prepares a "nonpartisan" primary ballot containing only and all candidates for county office without regard to the candidates' party affiliation or designation, if any. The nonpartisan ballot is issued to county electors who are either unaffiliated or are affiliated with political parties for which separate primary ballots are not prepared.
Finally, the HRC provides that the two candidates for county office receiving the highest number of votes in each race on the primary election ballot proceed to the general election ballot in November, regardless of their party affiliation.or designation (6). Therefore, both of the primary election “winners” in any given contest can be affiliated with the same political party, or unaffiliated, or simply "undesignated" (i.e., the candidate is affiliated with a political party for voter registration purposes but failed or decided not to obtain the designation of that party for purposes of the primary election).
Prospective candidates for county office and individuals interested in Pitkin County's utterly unique method of conducting primary elections for county office are encouraged to contact the Election Manager directly with any questions or for further clarification..
Pitkin County Clerk & Recorder’s Office
530 E. Main Street, Suite 104
Aspen, CO 81611‐1948
The Colorado Constitution was amended by a majority vote of the state’s electors on November 3, 1970, to add a new section sixteen to article XIV, effective January 1, 1972. Section sixteen of article fourteen provides that the “registered electors of each county of the state are hereby vested with the power to adopt a home rule charter establishing the organization and structure of county government consistent with this article and statutes enacted pursuant hereto.” Colo. Const. art XIV, § 16(1). The General Assembly enacted enabling legislation to effectuate this new constitutional provision, codified at title 30, article 11, part 5 of the Colorado Revised Statutes. One of the provisions of that legislation states: “Officers of a home rule county shall be appointed or elected as provided for in the charter; the terms of office and qualifications of such officers shall also be provided for in the charter; however, the duties of such officers shall be as provided by statute....” C.R.S. § 30‐11‐513.
HRC § 6.2.3 states in part: “The primary ballot for County offices shall be available equally to persons who are members of a regular political party and to those persons who are not affiliated with any political party.”
HRC § 6.2.4 states: “A candidate who desires designation on the primary ballot as the nominee of any recognized political party shall have received that party’s designation according to state law.” State law provides two mechanisms by which a candidate can obtain political party designation on the primary election ballot. First, a candidate for county office can obtain party designation by assembly by receiving the votes of at least 30% of the delegates to the major political party’s county assembly. See C.R.S. § 1‐4‐601. Since state law does not impose a petition‐signature requirement on candidates seeking party designation by assembly, these candidates need only comply with the HRC's nominal petition signature requirement (which is applicable to all candidates for county office, whether or not designated by a political party) by obtaining 100 signatures of Pitkin County registered electors. HRC § 6.2.2. Second, a candidate can seek party designation by petition by circulating party designation petitions and obtaining a number of signatures of registered and similarly affiliated electors equal to 20% of the votes cast at the preceding contested or uncontested primary election for that office, or if no such primary election was held, then 20% of the total votes cast for that office at the most recent general election at which the office in question appeared on the ballot. See C.R.S. § 1‐4‐810(2)(a). Since the number of signatures to obtain party designation by petition under state law almost always substantially exceeds the 100 signatures required of all candidates for county office, Pitkin County candidates normally obtain party designation by assembly or forego party designation altogether and proceed as undesignated candidates.
See generally, HRC § 6.6. In 2012, the Board of County Commissioners adopted Ordinance No. 013-2012 to, among other things, clarify the scope of Pitkin County's campaign finance regulations and their relationship to state law provisions. Ordinance No. 013-2012 effectively added new Title 4 to the Pitkin County Code. Therefore, prospective county candidates and individuals interested in accepting contributions or making expenditures supporting or opposing county candidates, ballot questions and ballot issues should carefully review the campaign finance provisions set forth in HRC § 6.6 and Pitkin County Code §§ 4.10 to 4.100.
Colorado has a total of sixty‐four counties. Two of them - the City & County of Denver and the City & County of Broomfield - are combined city-county governments that have adopted home rule charters. Although these political subdivisions are counties in many respects, for historical reasons Colorado's constitution vests their electors and governing bodies with the expansive powers of municipal home rule rather than the more restricted powers of county (or structural) home rule. In this regard, then, both Denver and Broomfield are home rule municipalities rather than home rule counties. See Colo. const. art. XX, §§ 1, 10. The remaining sixty-two Colorado counties are not combined city-county governments and are thus counties proper. Only two of these – Pitkin County and Weld County – have adopted charters to become home rule counties. The other sixty counties that have not adopted home rule charters are commonly referred to as statutory counties, denoting the fact that their governmental structure and governance is dictated by the state constitution and statutes. While Pitkin County is not the sole home rule county in Colorado, it is the only one that deviates from state law with respect to the election of its officers; Weld County's charter effectively adopts state law provisions for those purposes. See Weld Co. HRC § 15‐1.
HRC § 6.3.2. For this reason, if two or fewer candidates file sufficient paperwork for a particular county office by the filing deadline, their names do not appear on the primary election ballot. Rather, the Clerk & Recorder simply certifies them to appear on the general election ballot in November..