Dustin Cordova, a 36-year-old inmate in the Denver County Jail, jumped out of his chair and reached for a voter registration form, surprised that one was being offered.
“I was a felon so I didn’t know I could vote until now,” Cordova said after he filled out a form with his jail-issued pencil, similar to those used on mini-golf courses. “I thought I had to wait seven years or something.”
This election cycle, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition is launching a statewide campaign to inform people with criminal records of their voting rights. The campaign comes as the Colorado Secretary of State has implemented a new rule ordering the state’s 64 sheriffs to coordinate with county clerks to facilitate voting in jails.
In Denver, the justice reform coalition has gone a step further by coordinating with the Denver Elections Division to go inside the Denver Sheriff Department’s two jails to register inmates to vote. They don’t tell inmates who to vote for, but they explain the importance of the election and who has a right to participate in it.
In Colorado, people serving out a felony conviction under the supervision of the state Department of Correction or the federal Bureau of Prisons cannot vote.
The thousands of men and women housed in county jails, though, are eligible. Most of them are in jail awaiting trial, which means they haven’t been convicted, or they are serving time for misdemeanors. People who are on probation also can vote.
Suzanne Staiert, deputy secretary of state, said the new rule about jail inmate voting was created to clear any confusion about who was allowed to vote within the criminal justice system. It’s up to the sheriffs and the clerks to figure out how to make it happen. They can allow the ballots to be mailed or the clerks might hand-deliver them, Staiert said. But clerks must have a plan for how it will be done.
“This kind of starts the conversation between the clerk and the jail because most sheriffs aren’t thinking about voting rights,” she said.
Chris Johnson, executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, said all 64 sheriffs have plans in place to distribute the Blue Books, which provide an impartial analysis of everything on the ballot, and to make sure the ballots get delivered and returned on time. So far, there have been no complaints because sheriffs already were allowing registered inmates to vote, he said.
No one could provide data on how many state ballots were cast from inside jails or by former felons.
But Cooper said myths still abound when it comes to ex-cons and voting. That’s why his organization is launching its Voting With Conviction campaign.
“There’s an urban and suburban pervasive myth that if you have a felony on your record you cannot vote,” Cooper said. “And it is not true.”
Earlier this week, Cooper along with Stuart Clubb, ballot operations coordinator with Denver Elections, made the rounds through the Denver County Jail’s pods to register inmates. They ran a pilot program in 2016 and registered nearly 300 inmates. About a third cast ballots, Cooper said.
Across Colorado, sheriffs are required to provide voter registration forms to any inmate who asks. But it’s unusual for a registration drive to happen behind bars because it takes a lot of effort make it happen.
Cooper and the others making a pitch to register required security escorts. They had to leave behind their cell phones and car keys and even rubber bands and binder clips they had used to organize pamphlets to give to inmates.
The Denver Sheriff Department supports the effort because it supports the department’s goal of preparing inmates to live as productive citizens when they leave. Voting maintains a connection to the community, said Carrie Stanley, the sheriff department’s director of inmate programs.
“We want to make sure people feel that even when they’re in our care, they’re still part of our community,” she said.
Many inmates want to engage, Cooper said.
“We underestimate their competency in following elections, following folks who are candidates,” he said. “These are people who are eligible citizens to register to vote and to vote.”
During his pitch to inmates, Cooper rattled off the various offices that are up for election — governor, attorney general, legislature, judges — making sure the inmates understood that many of these politicians’ decisions affect the criminal justice system.
“Your vote matters,” Cooper said. “The system has impacted you. This is your opportunity to use your voice to impact the system.”
Some inmates silenced the volume on televisions so they could hear Cooper. Some never looked up from card games or books.
Cordova, who will be released from jail in early October after completing his sentence on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge, was one of a half-dozen men in his 48-person pod who filled out the paperwork. He expressed an eagerness to cast his ballot in November.
“I feel proud to do it,” Cordova said. “I look forward to voting because I didn’t know I was able to do it.”