Inmate advocates spread the word on what it takes to vote from jail

When it comes to voting rights, Colorado’s prisoners are a sticky case study. Some can vote and some can’t. But most of them don’t have an inkling that they are eligible to exercise that right. Enter the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. The Denver-based prisoner advocacy group has been working furiously to let Colorado’s incarcerated population know who is allowed at the ballot box. But because of state’s complex regulations, that effort isn’t as simple as it seems.

Voting rights for prisoners are determined on a state-by-state basis. Some, like Vermont or Maine, allow incarcerated felons to cast their votes. In Colorado, however, felons are barred from voting until they have completed their sentence and parole; that law has been on the books since 1876. Those on probation — a sentence offered as an alternative to prison where a person is free, but supervised in the community — can vote. And so can some people in jail: those awaiting trial and those serving a misdemeanor sentence.

While CCJRC has sponsored voter information drives in the past for all kinds of inmates, this year the group will focus on the jail population. In the next several weeks, the organization will distribute "Can I Vote From Jail?" brochures to the Denver County Jail and the city’s Clerk and Recorder. CCJRC re-entry coordinator Carol Peeples, who is spearheading the effort, says that state agencies make no effort to let detainees know if they can vote.

"There is no education process with the Department of Corrections or with the Secretary of State," she says. "It’s up to people to learn on their own."

Peeples first became involved with inmate voter advocacy when she taught a university course at a Buena Vista prison and happened to ask the inmates whether they were aware that they could vote once they left prison. The class remained largely silent, and Peeples realized that she had to act. In 2003 she organized a voter information campaign called the Colorado Voting Project to let ex-felons know their rights.

"There is so much misinformation," she says. "One guy was told by a federal probation officer that if he voted he would go to jail. So he didn’t vote for 10 years."

This time around, Peeples met with the inmate council at the Denver County Jail — a group of incarcerated people who serve as representatives for all of the inmates — to discuss her latest project. She says that some members of the group seemed interested in voting while others didn’t — a typical scenario, she says, among people on the outside as well.

But voting from jail is inherently more complicated, particularly because many inmates don’t have access to appropriate identification — or don’t have identification at all to show to election officials. The "Can I Vote From Jail" brochure addresses this and other issues in incredible detail.

"If you have access to a valid form of photo identification through a family member or friend, you can ask them to make a photocopy and mail it to you at the jail," the brochure reads, and then reminds inmates to make sure that the photocopy isn’t too dark as to be deemed unsuitable.

For people who know they will be in jail during the election, the brochure directs them to register to vote by mail and request an absentee ballot, taking care to send the ballot back early since mail processing takes longer in the jail.

Peeples says that the project shouldn’t be controversial, since it’s simply alerting eligible voters of their existing rights. "Everyone is leery of bad publicity," she says. "This is a way to make it work for people who have the right and are eligible to vote. Let’s make it possible."

Alton Dillard, spokesman for the Denver County Clerk and Recorder’s office, agrees. "There is the possibility [of controversy]," he says. "There are things that just fall under the heading of ‘doing the right thing.’"

Even so, inmate voter rights have long touched a nerve in Colorado. In 2006, CCJRC and other groups filed suit — albeit unsuccessfully — against then-Secretary of State Gigi Dennis for barring a parolee from voting. (Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a similar suit challenging an Alabama voter law.)

And last year, CCJRC worked to amend an election law bill in order to allow felons on parole to vote. "It made sense to us," she says. "They are out paying taxes." But the amendment was stripped out of the bill in the House Judiciary Committee, amid complaints from some Republican legislators and Secretary of State Mike Coffman.

This time around, Peeples says the voter outreach is simply about education. "We want to make sure that jail employees and people who are incarcerated know."