You know how it starts: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for a common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
And, as you also know, that document failed to secure the blessings of liberty for all Americans equally. The continued struggle to perfect the Constitution—with amendments and social change—is thus the story of this country’s evolution. While the 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments expanded the franchise to include naturalized citizens, Black men, and women, respectively, state and local laws undermined those victories by limiting access to the voting booth in various ways, including poll taxes and literacy tests. A horrific history of lynchings, intimidation, and other forms of violence ensured that African Americans did not have equal access to the ballot box. Other groups—Native Americans, people with disabilities, immigrants—also faced discrimination. “The story [of suffrage] doesn’t end with the 19th Amendment,” says Jillian Allison, the director of History Colorado’s Center for Colorado Women’s History. “[Sex] was just one barrier.”
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Many Colorado politicians and advocates have kept working to improve voter access. In the past decade, the state has taken a proactive approach to increase turnout in several ways, from allowing same-day registration to switching to a mail-in ballot system. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the changes seem clairvoyant, giving Coloradans a tested system designed for convenience and safety.
The Centennial State is making other adjustments, too. Last year the state passed a law—supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—to allow parolees to vote.
“On some level, I thought it would be a lot harder than it was [to achieve],” says Denise Maes, ACLU of Colorado’s public policy director. Instead, it passed easily, and Colorado joined 17 other states with similar laws. “In Colorado, we have done so much; we really are a beacon for the nation,” Maes says of voting access and rights in general. “I’m not going to say it is 100 percent, but boy, we’ve done a lot, and you can tell by the percentage of people who do vote.” (In 2016, Colorado’s turnout was fourth in the country, with 72.1 percent of eligible voters participating.)
This year is also the first time that 17-year-olds who will be 18 by November 3 partook in Colorado’s primary elections. Another 2019 change was increasing access for voters with disabilities: For the 2020 election season, county clerks across the state will implement ballot adjustments for voters with visual impairments, more accessible voting booths for in-person voting, and additional electrical connections so that people with adaptive equipment can plug in and cast their ballots. It’s all part of improving an evolving system, says Peg Perl, Arapahoe County’s director of elections. “We can have a lot of rights on paper that are still hard for people to access in life.”