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.
Person-to-person outreach there has had a strong impact. Before the coalition began its work in 2016, Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center program manager Andrew Jones estimated 10 inmates registered to vote.
“It wasn’t on a large scale,” Jones said. “Quite honestly, even with us being a law-enforcement agency, we were not aware that you could vote if you had a certain classification or certain record, so not only are the inmates being educated on this whole process.”
He added: “As long as they get the opportunity, you’re guaranteed that they are going to speak their voice. They say, ‘Look, we’re going to vote for who we think is best’ and they do it from the heart or with their education.”
While access to ballots is being facilitated across the state, inmate access to ballot information is not consistent. Inmates in Denver receive the state “blue book,” a guide detailing the pros and cons to various ballot measures. Inmates in other counties who do not receive individual information packets must glean information from television and print media sources. Inmates allowed library access – in facilities with libraries – might also access election literature in that way.
Making resources available to those who ask for them is enough, said state Rep. Timothy Leonard, R-Jefferson, who raised similar concerns when the parole voter bill was in committee.
“Incarcerated people have the right to vote and the state should never stand between that,” Leonard said. “That’s an entirely different issue than ‘Does the state have any responsibility, proactively especially and with funds, to target a specific demographic of folks to register to vote?’ Because does that mean the state cares more about that person voting than that person themselves cares about their right to vote?”
Neither the state nor the nonprofits mandate inmates register or vote, but Cooper said this work is important because a large number of inmates don’t understand their right to vote.
“There is a suburban and urban myth historically in Colorado and throughout the nation that if you have a felony you cannot vote,” Cooper said. “We knew it was important as an organization when we started to myth bust.”
In addition to having a voice on who fills seats in the attorney general’s office and who wears the sheriff’s badge, voter enfranchisement campaigns can be a powerful gateway issue into greater political engagement.
“This is anecdotal, but I’ve done this work for several years now and in states where there’s been active voter enfranchisement campaigns that has been a first step in helping to politically inspire formerly incarcerated residents,” said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project. “Those residents have gone on to become some of the strongest community organizers who are doing community and political engagement.”
For others, voting is the first step in moving forward.
While awaiting an October court date, James C. registered to vote.
He said he was too caught up in the day-to-day to really study the issues, but “it’s a form of ID so I can reestablish residency here and get Social Security cards and get back into the work field and because I want to make a difference.”
Cooper added he wants to hear the voices of the “invisible voting bloc” speak in the election, not just for the auxiliary benefits but because it is their right.
“This is not something that we feel is a privilege, it’s their constitutional right and I think it’s important to emphasize that,” Cooper said. “This is not something that voters are asking permission to do – it is something that they have a right to do.”