Every four years, politicians tell us that this November’s election is the biggest, most consequential ever—this month’s push to the polls being no different. But what ballot decision has actually shaped the state more than any other? Even experts have a difficult time agreeing on an answer.

Colorado Women’s Suffrage Referendum (1893)
“Colorado became one of the first states to grant women franchise, which nearly doubled our electorate. We were pretty progressive even way back then: A provision in the 1876 state constitution had already given women the right to vote in school board elections. The only downside of the 1893 referendum was that although African American women also got the vote, it still left out Asian American and Indigenous women.” —Rebecca Hunt, associate professor emerita of history at the University of Colorado Denver

Taxpayer Bill of Rights and Amendment 2 (1992)
“TABOR took tax and revenue decisions out of the hands of the Legislature, altering the nature of budgeting. Amendment 2 prohibited cities, towns, and counties from providing protected status to homosexuals. Not only did the law lead to Colorado’s ‘Hate State’ reputation, but the U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled it unconstitutional, Romer v. Evans, also became the basis for three decades of legal decisions on LGBTQ rights.”
—Robert Preuhs,
professor and chair of the political science department at Metropolitan State University of Denver

State Board of Education (2000)
“Jared Polis was elected to the board of education by a mere 90 votes out of 1.6 million. He self-funded his $1.2 million campaign, swamping incumbent Ben Alexander, who spent just $10,000. Polis then dropped about $7.3 million—nearly four times as much as his opponent Joan Fitz-Gerald—to win the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District in 2008. A decade later, Polis spent an unimaginable $24 million to $30 million to become governor. Along with the likely tens of millions that Polis, Tim Gill, Pat Stryker, and Rutt Bridges [Democratic donors nicknamed ‘the Gang of Four’] spent beginning in 2004, they proved that, at least politically, Colorado may not be cheap, but it can be bought.” —Bob Beauprez, former U.S. representative (2003-’07) and 2014 Republican nominee for Colorado governor

Governor and General Assembly (2012)
“Democrats won the governor’s office and both houses of the General Assembly, which resulted in the passage of the Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act of 2013. The law greatly increased voter participation by mandating that mail ballots be sent to every registered voter for most elections; establishing polling centers where any voter in a county can cast a ballot; authorizing in-person, same-day registration; and shortening residency requirements for registration.” —Polly Baca, first woman of color elected to the Colorado state Senate (1979-’86)

U.S. Senate (2014)
“Cory Gardner’s upset win over Mark Udall served as a test case for disinformation campaigns and extreme technological microtargeting. Cambridge Analytica—a data firm that harvested millions of Facebook users’ data without consent, which it then used to deliver misleading ads to specific people—was likely involved with efforts to boost Republican turnout in Colorado that year. Those tactics were expanded upon during President Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016, and both elections seeded the groundwork for potentially decades of extremism in Colorado’s GOP. Currently, there are several extreme—even conspiracist—candidates poised to win elections this November.”
—Trish Zornio, science and policy columnist for Colorado Newsline and former 2020 Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate

This article was originally published in 5280 November 2020.
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan is the former digital editor of 5280.com and teaches journalism at Regis Jesuit High School.