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Voter outreach will extend to La Plata County Jail, with COVID precautions

Only 15 to 20 inmates typically vote in elections

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has upended most facets of daily life, voting at the La Plata County Jail this November is expected to go on as usual.

Erin Hutchins, La Plata County’s election administrator, said June’s primary was a good trial run for local officials to test the most effective and safe way to give inmates an opportunity to vote.

Pre-pandemic, Hutchins said inmates interested in voting would gather in a room with election judges, who would provide information and materials, as well as the chance to sign up to vote, on that particular year’s ballot.

This year, however, to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, elections judges will not be entering the jail. Instead, voting materials will be delivered to jail and a designated representative will take it to inmates. Then, ballots will be collected and delivered back to the Clerk & Recorder’s Office.

“Our access has been limited but we’ll still try and maintain our same level of outreach for all the inmates currently incarcerated to ensure they get the chance to vote,” Hutchins said.

Ed Aber, the jail’s top administrator for the Sheriff’s Office, said of the jail’s average daily population of about 150 inmates, only about 15 to 20 people end up voting.

“It’s not great,” Aber said.

Some inmates are from outside the county. Others may not be interest in voting. And some people just feel like they are not knowledgeable enough on certain matters to feel comfortable making a vote, Aber said.

“It’s some of the same things that cause our general population and our community to say, ‘I don’t understand this bond issue so I’m not voting on it,’” he said.

This year’s ballot will feature several highly contested races, including former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper challenging incumbent Republican Cory Gardner for U.S. Senate. Republican Lauren Boebert is running against Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush for the House of Representatives, a seat currently held by Scott Tipton, who was defeated in the primary.

There are also several local races, including county commission, and a number of ballot items. And, of course, the presidential election in which Republican Donald Trump is being challenged by Democrat Joe Biden.

“It’s quite a large ballot,” Hutchins said.

Aber said the jail has contemplated providing educational classes on upcoming elections, but it would be difficult to pull off objectively.

Jails and prisons in other communities have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks, but Aber said the La Plata County Jail has been able to keep the virus’ spread under control by “staying ahead of the crisis.”

The jail started planning for the pandemic in February, Aber said, and has implemented a strict plan of quarantining anyone who may be at risk and social-distancing within the jail to reduce spread.

The jail has booked inmates with COVID-19, but protocols in place keep those people away from the general population.

“Some of it’s been luck, but we’ve been fortunate to stay two weeks ahead of the crisis,” he said. “We’re not waiting to react to a situation, we’re taking a preventative stance.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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