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Robert Russell delivers his ballot by bicycle as Gunnison County residents turn out for early voting in the parking lot of the Blackstock Government Building.(Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

More than half of all registered voters in Colorado had already voted by 3 p.m. Thursday, and some say by the time all the ballots are counted, the remarkably high turnout from 2016 will likely be eclipsed.

This year’s early-vote numbers show higher turnout than in 2016 among both political parties. Unaffiliated voters have cast more ballots than Democrats, who have cast more than Republicans.

“The political environment in general is very polarized right now, so when you combine that with the fact that it’s a presidential election, you have Democrats and Republicans and everyone in between fired up to vote,” said Ryan Winger, a data analyst for Magellan Strategies, which tracks early-vote numbers. 

MORE: Colorado early vote tracker: Here’s a look at the turnout in the 2020 election

Voter turnout is expected to exceed 3 million for the first time in the growing state, up from 2.8 million in 2016. 

On Thursday, five days before the 2020 election, turnout hit 54%. At this point in 2016, just over 40% of registered voters in Colorado had cast ballots. 

Colorado posted one of the highest voter turnout marks in 2016, with 75% of registered Colorado voters casting a ballot, or 72% of the voting-eligible population

The outlook this year is better for Democrats than Republicans. Sixty-three percent of Democrats have already turned in their ballots, compared with 55% of Republicans, according to The Colorado Sun’s early vote tracker. 

Unaffiliated voters now lead early returns — with 46% returning ballots — and they represent the largest bloc of Colorado voters at 42%.

The trends this year appear to be a continuation of the 2018 voting patterns in which unaffiliated voters surpassed both major political parties and helped contribute to the “blue wave” in Colorado. That year, Democrats won complete control of Colorado government and lawmaking. 

“Republicans should be feeling pretty bad,” said Ben Engen, a Republican strategist who runs a political analytics firm that studies early-vote returns.

Democrats have a significant edge in enthusiasm, the numbers suggest

The high turnout numbers in Colorado are in no small part because it’s easy to vote in the state, but other factors this year are driving up voting numbers, and more for one party than the other.

Democrats’ strong numbers are driven in part by an increase in their party registration and a boom in enthusiasm for this election with President Donald Trump at the top of the ballot. 

Democrats increased their voter registration edge over Republicans more than three fold since the 2016 election and now hold a 104,000 advantage in party registration. At the start of October, the split among registered voters stood at 30% Democrat, or 1,215,277 voters, and 27% Republican, or 1,111,615 voters.

The growing gap in registrations is accelerated by the changing demographics of the state, which has become younger in recent years. “Young, diverse kids are turning 18 every day and know what side they’re on,” said Ian Silverii, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, a liberal group. 

Political observers expect the gap in votes cast between the two major parties to close as the election nears. Republicans may have been more cautious about voting by mail after President Trump falsely claimed the system was ripe for fraud, and they are waiting to drop off their ballots or vote in person.

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“We’ll probably see Republicans make up some ground,” said Engen, the Republican analyst, who expects between 3.2 million and 3.5 million Coloradans to vote this year.

David Pourshoushtari, a Colorado Democratic Party spokesman, said he was also anticipating Republicans would make up part of the deficit. “We expect that the gap will close at some point,” he said. 

Even if Republicans reduce the margin — and an analysis by Engen suggested it’s starting to happen — it’s unlikely they can overcome the significant advantage Democrats currently hold, analysts said. 

Some Democratic analysts believe they have another advantage should Republicans close the gap: unaffiliated voters. 

The number of unaffiliated voters has grown by nearly 367,000 over the last decade. This voting bloc splits 60% to 40% in favor of Democrats, based on prior election data.

Many of them are more progressive than the Democratic Party, said Winger, the Magellan strategist, and as a whole, the group is  “tipping the scales in favor of Democrats.”

The Colorado Sun | Twitter: @EvanOchsner