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Colo. enacts law making in-person voting available inside all jails

The law requires Colorado’s county jails to provide at least six hours of in-person voting in the days before Election Day

Denver Sheriff's Department Jail

Denver Sheriff Department deputies guard inmates at Denver’s county jail on Oct. 13, 2022. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

RJ Sangosti/TNS

By Seth Klamann
The Denver Post

DENVER — Thousands of Coloradans incarcerated in the state’s jail system will now be able to vote in person while in custody, under a new law that’s the first of its kind in the United States.

The law, which Gov. Jared Polis signed Friday, requires Colorado’s county jails to provide at least six hours of in-person voting in the days before Election Day. It also requires that facilities set up a location for mail-in ballots to be deposited.

While Denver and some other U.S. cities have established in-person voting programs, no state has ever required its system of jails to convert space into temporary polling places for the people inside of them.

“The passage of Senate Bill 24-072 marks a pivotal moment for voting rights in Colorado,” Carmen J. López of the Sentencing Project said in a statement. “It reflects a broader recognition of the importance of second chances and the need to address systemic barriers to full participation in civic life.”

The law, which took effect immediately, was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzales, along with Democratic Reps. Manny Rutinel and Kyle Brown.

More than 9,200 Coloradans were incarcerated in the state’s jails in the first three months of this year, spread across dozens of jails in most of the state’s 64 counties, according to state data. More than 60% of them are still awaiting trial and have not been convicted, officials said.

In Colorado, only those serving in-custody sentences for felony convictions are not allowed to vote, meaning those serving jail terms for misdemeanor convictions can still cast ballots, as well as those awaiting adjudication.

A combined 9,293 jailed Coloradans who were eligible to vote didn’t do so in the 2020 and 2022 elections, Jasmine Ross, of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, told lawmakers during a February hearing.

In Denver, which held in-person voting in its jails during the 2023 mayoral election, the proportional turnout was higher than for that of the city as a whole, said Kyle Giddings, the civic engagement coordinator for the coalition, pointing to data pulled from the city clerk and recorder’s office. Paul López, the city’s clerk and recorder, testified in favor of the bill and has previously said that turnout is proportionately higher among those in the city’s jails. (Only nine votes from the city’s jails were cast in the 2022 general election, though Giddings said in-person voting wasn’t held that year because of pandemic restrictions.)

“They have the right to vote, so we should do everything we can to make sure they have access to the ballot,” he said.

Previously, the state required only that Colorado jails establish a plan with their county clerk to register voters and provide mail-in ballots to them. Rarely did that lead to actual voting: According to data from the reform coalition, only 360 ballots were delivered to Colorado jails during the 2022 midterm elections. Of those, just 231 were cast.

Denver, Giddings said, has become a national leader for in-person voting in jails. He’s served as an election judge in the jail here, where common rooms are turned into temporary polling sites, with a few laptops and a printer wheeled in for the day. People can get registered to vote then, too, he said.

The change has been viewed with skepticism from other sheriffs’ offices, some of whom testified against the measure during its journey through the Capitol. Amy Nichols, the executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, said in a statement to The Denver Post that “sheriffs around the state have always taken whatever steps are necessary to ensure that individuals in their jails who have the right to vote, have the opportunity to vote through Colorado’s mail ballot process.”

But, Nichols continued, sheriffs were concerned “that establishing polling stations and ballot drop-off locations within local jails across Colorado will be extremely difficult for many counties who are struggling with lack of funding, staffing shortages and infrastructure challenges.”

A nonpartisan fiscal analysis of the legislation estimated that the law would cost large and mid-sized counties up to $4,000 total per presidential election. It would cost up to $2,400 for smaller counties. The state reimburses 45% of counties’ eligible election costs, according to the analysis.

During a February committee meeting, the El Paso County clerk, Steve Schleicher, and the county’s head jail official, Scott Deno, both said they supported protecting ballot access for those in jail and that no one in their county’s facility had been disenfranchised. Both opposed the measure as expensive, burdensome and unnecessary.

Deno said the county had an “already established, efficient, effective partnership” to ensure people in the jail could vote if they chose to.

According to state data, no one in the El Paso County jail voted in the 2022 election.

Giddings argued that a proactive approach is key, particularly since many people involved with the criminal justice system may not be aware they’re even still eligible. Many, he said, “just automatically assume” they can’t vote at all.

He argued that people in jail have a vested interest in state governance and policy, particularly if criminal justice-specific reforms or issues are on the ballot.

“Those closest to the problems tend to be closest to the solutions,” he said. “Individuals in the criminal justice system are seeing the biggest issues that are happening inside the criminal justice system. … And people inside that system should have a voice on what should happen related to those reforms.”

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