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After more than a century as the most popular way to exercise democracy in Colorado, in-person voting in the Centennial State has died. (To be clear: Its ghost will linger in the form of some physical polling places for early and Election Day voting.) The cause of death is disputed, with most experts pointing to obsolescence; a cadre of prominent politicians, however, maintain that something more nefarious transpired.
Official in-person voting arrived in these parts in 1859, just two years before Colorado was designated a U.S. territory, but it took decades for the system to approach anything resembling a democratic process. White men made up the entirety of the electorate until the Territorial Suffrage Act of 1867 granted Black men the franchise; votes could be cast using any piece of paper that spelled the candidates’ names correctly. Those loose strictures prompted political groups to create “party tickets”—basically, ballots that included every name of a faction’s preordained nominees—which they then sometimes paid voters to submit, often more than once.
The 1890s, however, were a decade of enlightenment. As early as 1891, for example, the state government decided to make ballots uniform, which mitigated ballot stuffing and helped keep votes secret. Meanwhile, the efforts of Colorado suffragists, including writers Ellis Meredith and Elizabeth Piper Ensley, led to women casting votes in 1893, nearly three decades before the right was extended to their peers across the country. The 20th century welcomed new technology, such as lever machines, and increased protections through the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As more people began participating in the process, Coloradans began experimenting with alternate forms of voting, including mail-in ballots. Although balloting by post had been used temporarily before, mostly during times of war so that soldiers could still have their say, 1986’s Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act legitimized the idea that the mail could deliver fair and accurate elections. But in-person voting’s death knell didn’t begin to sound in earnest until 2013, when, in an effort to limit administrative costs and ensure a fair process, the Colorado General Assembly passed a law to send ballots to all voters. Voter participation jumped, from 51.7 percent of registered voters in the 2010 midterm election to 56.8 percent in 2014 and to 65.5 percent two years ago. That year, more than 70 percent of voters mailed in their choices or dropped them off at a ballot box.
During in-person voting’s final days, conspiracy theories arose about its decline. Most notably, President Donald Trump claimed Democrats planned its murder in order to more easily commit fraud and steal elections. At press time, he had failed to introduce any evidence of this idea. Such malfeasance has been nearly nonexistent within the Centennial State; only .0027 percent of the more than 2.5 million ballots cast during the 2018 election were thought to represent some form of illegal voting.
In fact, both parties in Colorado agree it was just in-person voting’s time. The pandemic simply hastened its departure. In-person voting will be remembered fondly by sticker aficionados, people who insist on making small talk in line even though you are clearly not interested, and your grandparents.