As advocates race to register parolees across Colorado, made possible through a 2019 law, many eligible but unregistered inmates inside El Paso County jail will likely not vote this upcoming election.
The law, which passed in July 2019, restored voting rights to nearly 11,000 people convicted of felonies who are out on parole in Colorado and, with less than three weeks from the November election, it’s driving voter registration efforts across the state.
Since then, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, along with the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership, have helped register 300 parolees, said Henry Price, civic engagement organizer for the coalition.
“Overall, the goal is to make sure we have a fully engaged electorate and to make sure those people who are directly impacted and formerly incarcerated have a voice,” Price said.
While the statewide nonprofit aims to help those register in time for the presidential election, it’s campaign, Voting with Conviction, is focused on educating formerly incarcerated people on their rights, he said.
“This is not just focused around every four years. We want folks to engage in their local communities,” Price said.
The work coincides with efforts to help people participate in the election while incarcerated. For the first time this year, there will be polling locations at the Denver county jail and downtown detention center.
While those serving time for misdemeanors or those awaiting trial have been able to vote for quite some time in Colorado, Denver is the third city nationwide to have in-person polls for inmates, Price said.
In Denver, 272 registration forms were collected this year from inmates in the city’s jails, said Daria Serna, spokeswoman for the Denver Sheriff Department. Eligibility is then determined by the Denver Elections Division, she said.
That number is in stark contrast to El Paso County, where no inmates at the county jail are registered to vote, according to a spokeswoman. None were registered for the June primary, either.
Under an election rule instituted in August 2018, county clerks in Colorado are required to make efforts to coordinate with the sheriff at each jail and detention center to facilitate voting for eligible inmates.
Inmates may request a voter registration form at a kiosk in the jail and a mail-in ballot will be delivered to them at the ward, said Deborah Mynatt, a spokeswoman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
In years prior, inmates could place their ballots in an official ballot bag, provided by the Elections Department, Mynatt said. But, this year, due to COVID concerns, inmates will mail in their ballots, unless they request otherwise, she said.
“We respect individuals’ legal rights by ensuring eligible inmates are afforded the opportunity to exercise their right to vote,” Mynatt said.
“It is not the responsibility of the Sheriff’s Office to get an inmate registered to vote or for getting an absentee ballot delivered to an inmate,” she added.
Most of the three-quarters of a million people in jails across the country have the right to vote but don’t due to barriers like misinformation, limited access to registration and ballots, and confusion among officials in charge, according to a recent report by Prison Policy Initiative.
Even though most states allow those convicted of misdemeanors to vote, few get to exercise that right.
“One of the biggest barriers to voting in jail is the fact that local election officials often don’t know that most people in jail can vote, and it’s not unusual for such officials to provide incorrect information in response to questions about the issue,” the authors of the report wrote.
While many states require specific forms of ID for voter registration, inmates typically have their belongings — including their driver’s license or other forms of ID — confiscated when they are booked into jail, which means they won’t meet the requirements to register, according to the report.
Another common obstacle, the report found, was due to the high turnover rate in jail, some people who register to vote while free but are in jail on Election Day.
The push to increase inmates’ participation in elections isn’t new but has been invigorated amid calls for civil rights and racial justice. In March, Cook County Jail in Chicago became the first in the country to operate a polling station.
According to the Chicago Tribune, more than a third of the 5,300 people incarcerated at the jail voted in the June primary, which was a “significant increase” from past years when inmates voted through absentee ballots. In the 2016 primary, only 967 voted; 1,329 cast ballots in the 2016 general election, the newspaper reported.
Inmates in Denver will be able to avoid many of the voting barriers this year by voting in person on Election Day — an initiative made possible through the partnership of Denver Elections Division, Denver Sheriff Department, The League of Women Voters and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Serna said.
“While mail ballots will continue to be used for people in custody who have enough time to ensure their ballots are delivered to the Election Division, polling centers will be set up in the jails the day before and the day of the election to ensure every person who is eligible to vote is able to update their registration and vote from jail,” she said.
In addition to blue books that provide information regarding items on the ballot, inmates are given education materials on their rights from Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and pro and con lists from the League of Women Voters, Serna said.
The passing of the 2019 law added Colorado to a list of 16 other states that restore voting rights for those convicted of felonies once they are released from prison.
Under the law, they can vote as soon as they are released, even if they have not paid all of their fines or restitution.
Still, more than half of states still don’t allow parolees to vote. In some states, ex-felons must pay back their court fees and fines before they can vote, while in others, there are post-sentencing waiting periods. Only Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia allow felons to vote while incarcerated.
Price, who grew up in St. Louis and served nearly 10 years in federal prison for a nonviolent drug offense, said he uses his experience to connect with others about engaging in the community.
He said he keeps the focus “as hyperlocal as possible” and stressed the importance for those on parole to vote in the race for their county’s district attorney.
“Something that we all know very intimately as incarcerated folks is how that office works and how they have influence in our lives both during our conviction and post-release,” Price said.
“Being formerly incarcerated and knowing the trials and struggles of trying to reintegrate, those types of connections are the ones I try to make with these guys and women as well and hoping to get them back engaged in society in a positive way.”