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Most jail inmates have the right to vote, but few do

Inmates in the La Plata County Jail are eligible to vote if they have not been convicted of a felony.

Political candidates seeking a few extra votes this year might consider hitting up an untapped electorate: inmates at the La Plata County Jail.

In the last 20 years, Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Lee Parker said she’s aware of only one inmate who has requested a ballot from within the jail. As of last week, there were 144 inmates housed at the jail, of which only two were ineligible to vote under state law because they are serving time for a felony conviction. That leaves 142 prisoners who might be eligible to vote if they meet residency requirements and aren’t on parole for a prior felony conviction.

Efforts are underway across the country to register disenfranchised voters – including homeless people, senior citizens and convicted felons – but nothing is being done locally to inform inmates of their right to vote or register them to vote.

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith, who has been in office for two years, said no groups or individuals have asked to do voter outreach in the jail. And former sheriff Duke Schirard, who oversaw the jail for 20 years, said the same of his tenure.

Parker, who does voter outreach, said she has never considered doing voter registration drives at the jail.

“It’s not like I’ve neglected it. It’s just I haven’t put it on the radar,” she said.

Inmates who already are registered to vote can receive ballots at their home, which can be delivered by a family member to jail.

In Colorado, inmates awaiting adjudication or sentencing have a right to vote, said Elizabeth Steele, elections director for Colorado Common Cause, a nonprofit that advocates to break down barriers to voting. Inmates serving time for a misdemeanor offense also have a right to vote, she said.

But those serving time for a felony conviction or who are on parole for a felony conviction can’t vote. They can, however, register to vote after completing their sentence.

“I think part of the problem is the rules about felons voting varies so much state to state,” Steele said. “In some states, once you’ve been convicted of a felony, you can never vote again. ... I think part of it is just education.”

It’s up to election officials, jail administrators and community groups that do voter outreach to inform jail populations of their right to vote and make sure they can register to vote, said Juston Cooper, deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a nonprofit trying to reduce mass incarceration.

It’s also incumbent upon candidates to engage jail populations and make sure they’re not disenfranchised, he said.

Little is known about the voting trends of inmates – for example, if they tend to lean Democratic or Republican – largely because they haven’t been a part of the political process, Cooper said.

Yet, criminal defendants are hugely affected by candidates and their policies, he said. County sheriffs oversee jails and district attorneys are key actors in putting people in jail. Both are elected positions, he said.

“When we think about the populations in jail that are eligible to vote who have been impacted by our elected officials, I think it’s important that they have a voice in who the elected officials are that impact their everyday lives,” Cooper said.

His organization worked this year with the Denver Elections Division and the Denver Sheriff’s Office to register inmates at Denver County Jail.

Simon Crittle, spokesman for Denver Sheriff’s Department, said a lot of inmates know they have a right to vote and want to exercise that right.

“We’re giving inmates the ability to vote and making sure it’s easy and as seamless as possible,” he said.

“For us, it’s about giving access.”

He added: “It’s similar to what Denver Elections does in nursing homes. They actually go to places where folks might not be able to get out and ... bring the election to them.”

So do candidates plan take their messages to the local jail?

“Until your phone call, it hasn’t been on my radar,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, who eked out a win with 50.3 percent of the vote in 2012 and is seeking re-election this year. “I would certainly be open to talking to folks at the jail about this election and answering any questions that I can.”

Her opponent, Lyle McKnight, could not be reached Friday for comment.

State Rep. J Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, who won by 168 votes in 2014, said he also hasn’t thought about campaigning at the jail, but it’s something he’d consider.

“Yeah, I might go after that,” he said. “... I’ll go after any vote. I even take Democrat votes.”

Efforts to reach his opponent, Barbara McLachlan, were unsuccessful.


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