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People vote by dropping off their ballots in the final day before Election Day in Denver, CO, November 2, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Empowered by mail ballots and energized by the nation’s polarized political climate, more Coloradans voted this year than ever before in the state’s history.

More than 3.3 million ballots had been processed by state election officials through Thursday and the tally is expected to grow as remaining ballots are processed and counted. That represents 78% of registered voters. In 2016, 2.9 million voters cast ballots, or 74% of those registered, according to state figures.

“It was really just very high turnout across the board,” said Ryan Winger, a data analyst for Magellan Strategies, which tracks early-vote numbers.

Colorado’s population has boomed in recent years, which allowed the state to top 3 million votes for the first time. But most significantly, the turnout hit 77% of the voting-eligible population — up from 72% in 2016, according to the nonpartisan U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida. This year’s number is the highest rate since tracking started in 2000.

Preliminary numbers show just three states had a higher turnout rate than Colorado: Iowa, Maine and Minnesota. Maine and Minnesota tied at 79.2%, the project found.

“This is an historic election,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold in a statement. “More Coloradans voted in this election than in any previous election in our state’s history, even in the midst of a pandemic. Colorado’s elections set the gold standard for the nation: it is clear that when people have access, they will vote.” 

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

Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters all cast ballots at higher rates than they did four years ago. But in a sign of the party’s slipping influence, fewer Republicans cast ballots in 2020 compared to 2016. In 2016, more than 963,000 Republicans voted, while about 941,000 voted in 2020.

More than 40% of the increase in ballots this year came from the four fast-growing counties surrounding and including Denver. As of Wednesday evening, voters in Arapahoe, Adams, Denver and Jefferson counties cast 186,000 more ballots than they did in 2016, a Colorado Sun analysis shows. All four counties favored Democrats Joe Biden for president and John Hickenlooper for U.S. Senate. 

The turnout increase in four Republican-dominated counties — El Paso, Douglas, Mesa and Weld — hit 32%, or 143,814 more ballots compared to four years ago. 

Winger said the high turnout rates this year, though driven in part by heightened political anxiety, were unlikely to change anytime soon. “Overall, Colorado is a very well-off state and a very educated state,” he said, and those factors give the state a greater propensity for high voter turnout. 

“Turnout has always been high, and I think it always will be high, here in Colorado,” he said.

But Ben Engen, a Republican strategist who runs a political analytics firm that studies early-vote returns, is less sure. He said the state could see a “recalibration” following this election, whether that means a shift back toward Republicans or an overall drop off in interest among voters. 

“I don’t think I would necessarily view this cycle as indicative of the future,” he said. 

Evan Ochsner

The Colorado Sun | Twitter: @EvanOchsner