Hundreds of thousands of Colorado voters are sending their mail-in ballots back to county clerks this week, and among them are several dozen jail inmates who successfully registered to vote this year.
The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition recently launched a vigorous vote-from-jail campaign. And while some counties have been more receptive than others, in Denver alone the number of voting inmates quadrupled from 20 people in 2004 to 80 this year.
“People were really excited,” says CCJRC re-entry coordinator Carol Peeples. “They said, ‘Thank you.'”
In spite of the increased interest, voting from jail is no easy task. First of all, not everyone who wants to register to vote is eligible to do so. In Colorado, felons and felon parolees are barred from voting. People who are on probation may vote. And those in jail awaiting trial or serving time for a misdemeanor crime may also vote.
The CCJRC Web site recommends that eligible detainees re-register to vote, even if they had signed on previously, because “there is a good chance that your name was removed from the Secretary of State’s list of registered voters.”
Many eligible inmates never register to vote, however, because they lack the right identification. Major Vicki Connors at the Denver County Jail estimates that 400 of the facility’s 2,000 inmates are eligible to vote. Some inmates asked a family member to bring a driver’s license or a state identification card to the jail, while others gave jail staff permission to go through their property and find an ID. But many had no paperwork whatsoever. “Quite a few didn’t have any ID, not even on the outside,” she says.
Connors and Peeples appealed to Secretary of State Mike Coffman to allow inmates to use their booking sheets — which include a photo and a birth date — as identification in order to register. But, according to Peeples, Coffman denied the request on the grounds that the sheet doesn’t include a residential address.
Coffman’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
“The rule of thumb is if it is not acceptable on the outside, then we can’t use it on the inside,” says Connors. “It was like we were going over and above [the call of duty], and that is against the rules.”
Connors says she facilitated voting for inmates in other ways. She posted CCJRC pamphlets around the jail and distributed voter affidavit forms to interested inmates, who then returned them, along with a photocopy of an ID as well as the registration form, to the county clerk.
When inmates receive their mail-in ballots, they must fill them out in the jail library, since they can’t have pens elsewhere in the building. Then they use money from their own commissary funds to pay for the ballot’s $1.17 in postage.
“You know what? They have rights,” says Connors, explaining her willingness to help inmates to vote. “They have due process. They have not been convicted. And the people who have already been convicted don’t lose their other rights, like the right to medical attention, or the right to due process. It is my job to make sure that everyone gets what is coming to them.”
Not everyone across the state is as enthusiastic. In Arapahoe and El Paso counties, for instance, jail officials don’t inform inmates of their voting rights unless they ask.
“From a resource standpoint it is not something that we can do. We can’t provide them more information at this time,” says Lari Sevene, public information officer for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
But Connors says that helping inmates vote reverberates beyond the ballot box.
“There was one person who won’t go to court until several weeks after the election. Technically, he is absolutely eligible to vote,” she says. “But this guy has 19 charges against him. This will be the last time ever in his life that he will vote, for sure, guaranteed. You know, you think about that when you are in the Department of Corrections. You think about what you gave up.”