Coloradans love their ballot measures.
Since the early years of statehood, Colorado voters have had a direct say on policy and spending questions, able to vote up or down on ballot measures.
For the first few decades, voters were only able to weigh in on referred measures, which are sent to the ballot by the General Assembly. But by the early years of the past century, they got the chance to propose their own questions.
A couple of avid reformers with the Colorado Direct Legislation League spent years pushing for the initiative process, and by 1910 Gov. John Shafroth called a special session of the legislature to put the proposals on the ballot, according to an article published by the Initiative & Referendum Institute and summarized on the Ballotpedia website.
That November, voters approved the creation of the initiative process — as well as the ability of residents to recall elected officials and prevent laws from going into effect — with 76% of the vote.
When the new procedure went into effect with the 1912 election, Coloradans went wild, gathering enough signatures to place 20 questions on the ballot — and then approved eight of them.
Since then, Colorado has ranked high among states that use the form of direct democracy to resolve thorny questions, take care of government housekeeping matters, and tackle problems the legislature won’t.
It’s mostly a Western thing, according to data compiled by Ballotpedia.
Oregon leads the pack with the highest number of proposed statewide initiatives over the years, followed by California and then Colorado. North Dakota and Arizona round out the top five.
Of the 183 initiatives proposed since Colorado began to employ the method, 36% have won approval — roughly the same percentage as initiatives in Oregon and California, though short of the 45% OK’d by North Dakota voters and 42% in Arizona.
As Coloradans go to the polls ahead of the 2021 off-year election — in most cases, that means opening the ballot that came in the mail, clearing a space on the kitchen table to fill it out, and then either putting it in the mail or delivering it to a drop box — it seems like a good time to take a look at some of the more consequential ballot measures approved by voters over the decades.
Most of the measures listed below were passed in the past 50 years, including in the bustling decade of the 1990s, the nationwide heyday of citizen initiatives.
Missing from the list are nearly all the measures that established or fine-tuned the rules state and local governments use to operate in Colorado, which make up the bulk of the statewide ballot questions.
From an amendment establishing the seat of state government in Denver to another limiting regular sessions of the General Assembly to 120 days, voters have had a hand in how the state runs since its beginning.
As an example, before voters approved Referendum 1 in 1968, Colorado’s governor and lieutenant governor were elected separately and could come from different parties, making for tense out-of-state trips when a governor had to worry their No. 2 might veto favored legislation or reverse the administration’s policies.
It wasn’t until 1966 that voters capped the number of state senators at 35 and the number of state representatives at 65 in Proposition 4, which simultaneously established procedures to reapportion legislative districts every 10 years using fresh census data.
In 1956, voters OK’d increasing from two years to four the terms the state’s executive officers would serve — including the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer and attorney general, along with an additional office that used to be elected statewide, the state auditor. (That office was turned into an administrative hire with a 1964 amendment.)
Federal constitutional amendments have also had their day at the polls. State voters enacted a “bone dry” Prohibition law in 1918 with 63% of the vote, and then reversed themselves in 1932, repealing Prohibition, though that vote only garnered 56% support.
In 1912, the first year Coloradans could initiate ballot measures — before that, they’d relied on the General Assembly to refer questions to the ballot — voters approved eight initiatives. Included in that crop were propositions that established an eight-hour work day for women and underground miners (in two separate proposals), allowed cities and towns to decide how to operate under “home rule,” firmed up the ability of residents to recall elected state and local officials, and created juvenile courts in cities and counties with more than 100,000 residents.
Since the 1880s, when several housekeeping measures that set the rules of state government each passed with 87% of the vote, few ballot measures have won approval by landslide margins.
In 2018, Proposition 111, a limitation on payday loans, won approval with 77% of the vote — the widest margin of the decade.
Here’s a look at 10 Colorado ballot measures that made a mark on the state — and, in some cases, the world.
1892 — Women’s suffrage. Colorado became the first state in the nation to grant the right to vote to women, with the all-male electorate approving the referred constitutional amendment with 55% of the vote. Wyoming’s territorial legislature had taken the same step 23 years earlier, but Colorado holds the distinction of being the first government anywhere in the world to establish women’s suffrage by popular vote. Two years later, Colorado voters of both sexes elected three women to the General Assembly.
1972 — Slamming the door on the Winter Olympics. Technically, Proposition 8 didn’t prohibit Colorado from hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics, but the constitutional amendment helmed by a young Denver state lawmaker named Dick Lamm kept the state from issuing bonds and otherwise financing the infrastructure needed to host the Olympics. It was the first time a location awarded the Olympics had rejected the games. The campaign helped propel Lamm, who died in July, into the governor’s mansion for three terms.
1972 — The Sunshine Law. Colorado’s landmark open government law required state and local government business to be conducted in public and established the presumption that public records are available to the public. It also required that officials disclose their private interests and created a registration system for lobbyists.
1974 — The Poundstone Amendment. Initiated by Republican lobbyist Freda Poundstone, who later served as mayor of Greenwood Village, the amendment hemmed in a voracious Denver, which had been on an annexation spree into the surrounding suburbs, with implications for metro governance that linger decades later.
1992 — Amendment 2. The measure forbade local governments from passing anti-discrimination laws to protect gay, lesbian or bisexual residents, prompting a furious backlash that spawned boycotts and labeled Colorado “the Hate State.” The amendment was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark ruling.
1992 — Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. After decades of attempting to pass tax-limitation measures similar to California’s Proposition 13, passed in 1978 to limit property taxes, Colorado’s Douglas Bruce managed to get the complex amendment known as TABOR across the line. The measure requires voter approval for tax increases but also imposes a myriad of other hamstrings on state and local government.
To conservatives, it’s the one thing that keeps Colorado sane, while it’s the amendment most liberals want to overturn.
1994 — The GAVEL Amendment. Short for “give a vote to every legislator,” the amendment establishes rules that basically accomplish that, setting Colorado apart from many states where lawmakers in the minority are used to seeing their proposals ignored. The measure requires that every bill get a hearing and prohibits legislative leaders from exercising “pocket vetoes.”
1996 — Term limits. The national movement first came to fruition in Colorado with a measure that also imposed term limits on members of Congress, though that element was later struck down in court.
2005 — Referendum C. The measure that lifted TABOR restrictions for five years is remembered as possibly the last time Republicans and Democrats set aside their differences and came together to push a ballot question across the line, though a companion measure, Referendum D, which covered transportation spending, failed by a narrow margin.
2012 — Legalizing recreational marijuana. With the passage of Amendment 64, Colorado became one of the first states in the country to make pot legal, along with Washington state, which passed a similar measure the same night. Although medical marijuana had been legal since 2000, the measure led to the creation of a regulated retail market, pot tourism and — eventually — widespread adoption across the country.