Denver allows inmates to vote in person for the first time

City and county is one of a handful of jurisdictions nationwide to establish process

By: - November 3, 2020 4:46 pm
Denver jail voting

Juston Cooper, left, deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, applauds 19-year-old Isaiah Rodriguez, after Rodriguez finishes voting in person at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center in Denver on Nov. 3, 2020. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

For the first time, people in jail at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center and Denver County Jail could vote in person this election season.

“I feel great,” said Isaiah Rodriguez, 19, who took advantage of the new program to vote in his first election. “I feel awesome. … It took time, but I’m glad that I put in my vote.”

As part of the Confined Voting Program — a partnership between the Denver Sheriff Department, Denver Elections Division, Denver League of Women Voters and Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition — temporary polling centers allowed inmates to cast ballots at the two jails.

In-person voting equipment was set up at the Denver County Jail only on Nov. 2 and Denver’s Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center on Nov. 3, but volunteers conducted voter registration drives multiple times this year at the jail to make sure inmates were prepared and educated about their ability to vote.

Denver jail voting
A person votes at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center in Denver on Nov. 3, 2020. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Denver is one of only a handful of counties in the country to allow in-person voting in jails. Others include Cook County, Illinois; Los Angeles County; and the District of Columbia, according to The Sentencing Project.

“It’s a historic moment for us and a time of transformation in criminal justice, and we’re proud to lead the way in instilling justice in all that we do,” Denver Sheriff Elias Diggins said during voting on Nov. 3.

“One of the biggest things that we’re trying to do in public safety is putting our money where our mouth is,” agreed Murphy Robinson, executive director of Denver’s Department of Public Safety. “We talk a lot about changing the criminal justice system. This is how you change the system: by little incremental changes that will make large and lasting impact.”

Juston Cooper, deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, has been a key advocate for the Confined Voting Program, Robinson said.

Cooper explained that the secretary of state’s office recently implemented a rule requiring counties to create a plan for ensuring people in jail who are eligible to vote have the ability to do so. Access to in-person voting in Colorado jails varies, however.

“With Denver piloting the first-ever in-person voting, we now have a blueprint” for other counties to follow, Cooper said.

People in jails in Denver have been able to vote by mail in the past, according to Paul Lopez, Denver’s clerk and recorder.

“We’ve had mail ballots for about seven years already, and our teams have been working with the sheriff’s department to make sure that folks have access to those,” Lopez said.

Denver jail voting
Juston Cooper, back center, deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, speaks about voting to people at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center in Denver on Nov. 3, 2020. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Rodriguez said people in the jail discussed the election among themselves, considering, “What would this president help could do better in our country versus this president?”

“I have an uncle that’s in jail,” Rodriguez said. “He encouraged me (to vote), and then I inspired other people … Other people inspired other people.”

Gabriel Pino, 27, said this was the second presidential election he’d participated in. He was grateful for the opportunity and said it had “lifted his spirits” after he feared he wouldn’t be able to vote this year.

“I think it’s a very good idea,” Pino said. “I’m from Pueblo, Colorado. I know if we had this team out there in Pueblo, I guarantee there would be a lot of guys voting.”

Not everyone in jail is eligible — people serving felony sentences, for example, cannot vote in elections until their sentence is complete.

But for the most part, the biggest barrier to voting is that people in jail “don’t know their rights,” said Carrie Stanley, director of inmate programs for the Denver Sheriff Department.

“We always have posters, large posters, up in the housing units about their voting right eligibility, and then we have the volunteers come in and talk with them,” Stanley said. “It’s really about making this part of the fabric of your programs and not just a once-a-year event.”

Denver jail voting
A Denver Sheriff Department deputy, left, stands guard at a polling center set up inside the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center in Denver on Nov. 3, 2020. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

People who don’t have a photo ID with them in jail can still register to vote, she explained. The process requires checking a person’s inmate ID, which has their name and date of birth, and then checking their driver’s license and Social Security numbers. Then, the sheriff or his designee must sign a letter verifying that the person is eligible to vote and may use their inmate ID to register.

“Before we opened up the voting centers this year, typically we would have maybe five to 10 ID-required letters,” Stanley said. “We had probably close to 50 yesterday (Nov. 2).”

Anne Duncan, co-chair of voter service for the Denver League of Women Voters, said she was impressed by how appreciative the people she met in jail had been for the opportunity to register and cast their ballots.

Duncan served as one of the volunteers helping to run elections at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center. She said the League of Women Voters, which is nonpartisan, had been able to distribute its educational information about ballot issues to voters in jail.

She noted that the jail’s voters had access to newspapers and television, but not the internet — which might make it more difficult for them to research political candidates before the election.

“That’s the challenge to figure out for the future — because we want people not only to vote, but it’s good for people to be informed about where people stand on the issues and what the issues are,” Duncan said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional context and quotes.

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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Faith Miller was a reporter with Colorado Newsline covering the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories.