Most inmates in Colorado jails are eligible to vote, but access varies

Colorado Common Cause report highlights patchwork of polices for incarcerated voters

A photograph of the Denver Justice Center, a courthouse and local jail in the Civic Center District, taken on Aug. 4, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Most people incarcerated in Colorado jails are eligible to vote. But their ability to do so depends on practices put in place by sheriff and county clerk offices.

A report published on Oct. 26 by the nonprofit Colorado Common Cause found wide variances from county to county when it came to voter registration and ballot access within the state’s jail facilities. 

“People who are convicted of misdemeanors or who are awaiting trial are still able to vote in Colorado — they haven’t lost their right to vote but whether or not they can easily get access to their ballot really depends on what county they live in,” said Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of the Colorado Common Cause nonprofit.

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In Colorado, if someone is arrested under suspicion of committing a crime, they still have the right to vote. While states vary on allowing those with a felony conviction to vote, in Colorado, it is only upon the conviction of a felony and when serving the term of imprisonment that a person loses their right to vote. Once on probation or parole, a person can register to vote and receive a ballot.

In 2018, a group of organizations worked with then-Secretary of State Wayne Williams to pass an election rule that encouraged county clerks to work with sheriffs to ensure that people who were in jails were able to vote. County clerks who deliver or receive ballots from county jails or detention facilities are required to log the number of ballots from each facility and provide the information to the secretary of state’s office after the election. 

“The good news is that after this election we’ll have much better data about what counties are doing a good job of facilitating voting because we’ll be able to calculate what percentage of their incarcerated population cast a ballot,” Gonzales said.

The report recommended that the nonbinding election rule implemented last year be written into state law to ensure data collection and adequate implementation and oversight of jail voting plans.

One of the co-authors of the report, Jai Rajagopal, died in September. “This was kind of one of the last projects that he put together and it was really personally important to him,” Gonzalez said. “He was really excited about doing the research and I think he did an excellent job putting it together.” 

Report highlights success stories, and room for improvement

To determine the accessibility of voting in county jails, Colorado Common Cause examined whether inmates had meaningful access to voter registration and ballots, and if communication between sheriffs and county clerks was productive.

The report, which included a survey of all 64 county clerks and sheriff’s departments in the state, found that some counties have been more effective than others in ensuring that inmates have the ability to vote.

Out of 64 counties in Colorado, 57 jails made up the majority of the Colorado Common Cause report. Six counties either didn’t have an in-county jail or didn’t file a jail voting plan. For example, Montrose County was unable to achieve contact or cooperation from its jail system for the 2018 election and thus did not complete a plan.

Seven counties earned an exemplary rating: Arapahoe, Baca, Crowley, Douglas, El Paso, Kit Carson and Lincoln. Twenty-two counties, or 40% of the 56 countries that created jail voting plans, were also determined to have adequate plans in place. Overall, 50% of Colorado’s counties earned a good or exemplary rating, according to the report. 

Though the report found many examples of counties that had successfully created or adapted their infrastructure to facilitate voting access in jails, it also outlined that sheriffs have the ability to use their own discretion when determining the ease of access for voting registration and ballot access with little oversight. 

In one county, a sheriff assigned a deputy to review voter registration forms before forwarding them to the county clerk’s office, according to the report. Another county chose a single day and time to offer and collect voter registration forms. And a handful of counties provided only one voter “blue book” — the state publication that explains ballot measures — for the entire jail, or had limited copies available to inmates.

“The problem is that the people that work and oversee jails often don’t see voter enfranchisement or elections administration as part of their job,” Gonzalez said. “They’re really busy people and so this feels ancillary to some. There’s also a culture shift that needs to happen to make sure that the people running our jails understand that voting rights continue to be a priority even when people are incarcerated.”

The counties that received a rating of “poor” in the report are Alamosa, Delata, Elbert, Gilpin, Huerfano, Las Animas, Montezuma, Park, Saguache and Sedgewick.

Denver County — a blueprint for in-person voting in jails

The report highlighted counties that had implemented successful programs to improve voting access within jail facilities. 

In El Paso County, inmates can request a voter registration form through the digital jail kiosk system. The county clerk also coordinated with the sheriff to make use of the jail TV system to inform inmates about voting. Smaller counties, such as Fremont, made detailed plans for bipartisan teams to collect voted ballots on a daily basis at a set time.

On Nov. 2 and 3, polling centers will be set up inside Denver’s county and city jails to allow inmates who are eligible to register and cast their ballots.

“The Sheriff’s Department has worked diligently over the last couple of weeks to incorporate and institute an in-person voting program for the jail as a pilot,” said Juston Cooper, executive director of CCJRC4Action, a new affiliate of the nonprofit Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

Three counties throughout the country currently facilitate in-person voting in jails, including Cook County in Illinois, Los Angeles County and Washington D.C, according to The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based research and advocacy institute.

Cooper hopes Denver’s program will provide a blueprint for other Colorado counties wanting to increase voter access for eligible inmates. 

“It’s so important that the jails, as an institution of our criminal legal system, afford folks those opportunities regardless of incarceration,” said Cooper, whose organization helped pilot the first jail-based voting registration program in 2016 in collaboration with the Denver Election Division and the Denver’s Sheriff’s Division. 

“We’re taking steps in the right direction,” he said.

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