When two wolves and a sheep vote on what’s for dinner, the sheep will likely be disappointed when the ballot are counted. Rural Colorado not only understands this disappointment, but also lives with the same fear of being served up on a plate for the voracious appetite of the Front Range.
Colorado is famous for its Continental Divide, but it also sports a visible political divide: progressive urban centers on one side and conservative rural outliers on the other. And this divide between these seemingly diametrically opposed political cultures appears to be widening before our very own eyes.
But, more importantly, this divide is also demographical. The growth of densely-populated urban centers along the Front Range is minimizing the political clout of rural communities.
The Denver Post reported the following:
“In 1980, rural voters cast nearly 17 percent of the state’s total votes. Though the number of rural votes cast in 2016 increased by nearly 78 percent to 352,490, the percentage of rural votes among total votes dropped to 13 percent. In that same time period, the number of urban votes cast increased by 146 percent, to 2,427,757.”
Simply put, the rural vote counts less and less each election.
When the question of a minimum wage increase — Amendment 70 — was put up for a vote in 2016, rural Colorado rejected it, because it threatens to our way of life. The percentage share of “proprietary jobs” — employment that entails business ownership as opposed to traditional employment — tends to be higher in rural Colorado. Those of us who “live in the sticks” have managed to thrive economically by starting our own businesses. But we do so on slim margins. Statewide wage mandates represent a huge business cost that our “ma and pa shops” cannot easily absorb.
Meanwhile, the Front Range voted resoundingly in favor of the hike. Boulder, Denver, Adams, Arapahoe, and Larimer Counties provided nearly two-thirds of the total “yes” votes that helped the measure pass.
And though rural communities are economically-burdened, frustrated, and disenfranchised by measures like Amendment 70, this isn’t our biggest concern. Do you want to know what keeps us up at night — especially those of us who live on the Western Slope? It’s this question: What happens when the Front Range comes for our water rights?
Think of Colorado as a blank rectangle. Draw a line down the middle of it. About 80 percent of the state’s water flows to the left of that line and about 80 percent of the state’s population lives on the right side.
The state’s population is expected to double by 2050 — most of it, again, on the right side of the state. By many estimates, there is simply not enough water to sustain that growth. Considering where all of the political power is concentrated, the math is again not in favor of those living on the left side.
Call it tin-foil hat conspiracy theory if you want, but this is a genuine concern for those of us living on the Western Slope. We rely upon our water to sustain our agricultural- and tourist-based economies, and a parched Front Range can easily satiate its thirst via political force.
There are ways to protect the rural underdog. Take Colorado’s legalization of marijuana as an example. Again, another statewide measure — Amendment 64 — was broadly opposed by conservative, rural communities. However, the amendment allowed for municipalities to codify their own local ordinances, creating autonomy for all communities to make up their own minds on the divisive issue. Creating “opt-out” safeguards in future statewide initiatives would be a goodwill gesture to those who feel like the Front Range way of life is imposing upon our own.
All we ask is that you remember where the locally-sourced produce for your farmer’s markets come from when you cast your ballot box next time. One Coloradoan’s cosmopolitan palate is another Coloradoan’s rapidly vanishing livelihood.