DENVER (CN) – On the last day of his misdemeanor sentence at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center in downtown Denver, 26-year-old Brian M. registered to vote.
“I just think overall it’s important for everyone to have a part in the decisions being made,” Brian said. “I am able to advocate for people who have been in this situation and actually still have a voice and I will have some significance in the matter and not just be a statistic in the system.”
Brian is one of hundreds of inmates registered by nonprofit Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition this year. People caught up in the criminal justice system are often underrepresented in elections and the coalition hopes to change that.
From misdemeanor sentences to felonies, more than 100,000 Colorado residents interact with the criminal justice system on a daily basis.
A state legislative report estimated 10,021 people are held daily in county jails, a majority of whom actually maintain their right to vote. While people serving prison sentences or parole lose eligibility, the state’s Division of Criminal Justice estimates 10,000 men and women complete parole each year and regain the right to vote.
“I encourage you to exercise your right to vote – it’s the one right they can’t take away from you,” the coalition’s deputy director Juston Cooper told a pod of 64 men detained in downtown Denver. Along with three volunteers, Cooper repeated the pitch and offered registration forms person to person, pod by pod over several hours.
“Your criminal background does not matter,” Cooper told inmates.
Throughout 2018, Cooper will make at least 12 of these trips with volunteers. He estimates the nonprofit registered 300 inmates for the primary election and hopes to register 300 more by the general election in November.
Starting this year, the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office added a new rule to the state election code tasking local county clerks to “coordinate with the sheriff or his or her designee at each county jail or detention center to facilitate voting for all confined eligible electors."
The issue of inmate representation in elections was brought to the secretary of state’s attention during discussions on the Voter Registration Individuals Criminal Justice System Act which was signed into law in May and streamlines registration after the completion of parole.
“This rule is an extension of what we’ve been doing which is making it possible for everyone to vote,” explained Ben Schler, the department’s legal and policy maker.
A first step in several counties was making basic eligibility information available.
“We are not in conversations with inmates. Instead, there is an informational kiosk that inmates may access daily in their blocks,” said Haley McKean, public information manager for the Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.
Arapahoe County Jail has an average daily population of 1,005 individuals.
“The sheriff’s office agreed to put an informational slide on these kiosks that indicates that inmates may be eligible to vote, and lets them know to contact a deputy to request a voter registration form,” McKean said.
With two detention facilities and an average daily population of 2,187 inmates, Denver operates the largest sheriff department in the state. Throughout 2017, the Denver Sheriff’s Department admitted 42,326 individuals with an average stay of 19 days.