As of today, 11,467 Colorado parolees can register to vote. Will they?

Plus: Why the state almost definitely won't re-enfranchise its prisoners any time soon

Paul Robison, 50, beams as he holds up a document confirming his voter registration. Robison is one of 11,467 Colorado parolees who today gained the right to vote. (Photo courtesy of Paul Robison)

Some 11,500 parolees living in Colorado gained the right to vote today. One of them, Paul Robison, wasted no time registering.

“It’s incredibly important to me. This is the only voice you got. This is the power you got, at the voting box,” said Robison, 50, who was released from prison in April after three years behind bars. He registered today at the Second Chance Center in Aurora, which helps formerly incarcerated people transition back into society.

Colorado passed a new state law this year to re-enfranchise people convicted of felonies who are out on parole — that is, people not incarcerated but who are still serving sentences and under supervision of the state. Parolees account for about one-third of the state Department of Corrections’ active population; about 22,000 others are currently incarcerated.

The bill went into effect today, meaning Robison and thousands of others are free to register and can vote as soon as this November.

But if early numbers are any indication, much work lies ahead in getting the word out. Before the parolee voting law was passed, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a 2018 bill that allowed parolees to pre-register to vote. So, in theory, the 11,467 active parolees in Colorado could have pre-registered ahead of today and then been automatically switched over to registered status. 

But the Secretary of State’s Office reports that only 39 parolees pre-registered — about one-third of 1 percent of those eligible.

Robison said that most parolees he knows either have no idea they can now register, don’t care to engage with politics, or both. He said many prisoners and formerly incarcerated people are so used to being excluded from society, particularly from housing and the workforce, that they’re hesitant to engage even when state laws invite them to do so.

“I’m in a re-entry center,” he said, “and I keep telling people, ‘Look, you have the right to go register to vote.’ And so many of them are like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t mean anything.’ And I’m telling them that on the local level, it really does.”

State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, sponsored the parolee voting bill this past legislative session. She said she hopes that by November, the percentage of voting parolees mirrors or comes close to the percentage of non-parolee citizens who participate in elections. Nearly 60 percent of eligible voting-age Coloradans voted last November, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. 

But Herod also said she knows it’ll be a challenge to reach many of those affected by the new law.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it or say that this is an easy population to engage,” she said.

Some outreach and education efforts are underway, and others are upcoming, that will target parolees and should boost the registered population.

For one, Colorado’s Division of Adult Parole now is required to tell parolees at their first meeting about their voting rights, including how to register and how to receive a ballot. A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Jena Griswold said her office has provided Adult Parole with an information sheet to give to parolees.

Griswold’s office in June convened the Bipartisan Election Advisory Committee. That group of clerks, advocates, lawyers and politicians will also develop a parolee engagement plan, Griswold said through her spokeswoman. She is at a conference in New Mexico and could not be reached for an interview Monday.

Herod also promised “targeted engagement” from her office, which, she said, will include contacting people around the times of their release dates as well as a “robust media campaign.” She suggested other lawmakers might be interested in joining forces on that front.

“We live in Colorado and a few hundred votes can swing a House race. A few thousand votes can determine our next U.S. senator,” Herod said. “People just knowing they can vote — it will make a difference.”

In the spring, when Herod’s bill was still working its way through the Capitol, the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Council estimated 9,297 people would be re-enfranchised if the bill became law. The number Griswold’s office released — 11,467 — would represent up to 0.33 percent of the total number of active registered voters in Colorado, as of June numbers. 

Were currently incarcerated people with felony convictions also re-enfranchised in Colorado, the state’s voter rolls could increase by up to about 1 percent. 

But extending the right to vote in that way almost definitely won’t happen anytime soon. 

The state Constitution includes the line, “No person confined in any prison should be entitled to vote,” which, attorneys and lawmakers agree, means the legislature could not on its own move to re-enfranchise incarcerated people, as only two states (Vermont and Maine) have done.

The legislature could refer a ballot measure to voters, asking to amend the Constitution, but two-thirds of lawmakers would have to support such a move, and there’s no evidence that such political will exists. Even Democrats highly supportive of the parolee voting law have mixed feelings about full re-enfranchisement. Herod said she’s undecided on whether Colorado prisoners should have that right, and neither Griswold nor Gov. Jared Polis would commit one way or another when The Indy asked each about it in April.

Voters could, of course, petition for such a ballot measure, but no groups are known to be planning such an effort.

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