I've been fielding phone calls all week from folks with criminal records who have seen our poster or the brochure that we distributed. They were thrilled to find out they could cast their ballot.
Scores of Colorado voters will cast ballots this fall from unlikely places.
About 150 inmates in the Denver County Jail are signed up to vote by mail, said Maj. Vicki Connors, the operations director. That's about three times the number who voted in 2004. And other inmates serving in work-release will be permitted to cast ballots on Election Day, she said.
In Jefferson County, 25 to 30 inmates are signed up to cast mail ballots, spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said.
It is unclear how many other inmates across Colorado will vote. But the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition said it hopes voter participation is higher this year as the result of interest in the presidential election and a 2005 law that allows people serving misdemeanor sentences to vote.
Still, there's lots of confusion about whether inmates and people with criminal records can vote.
Even some local election officials in Colorado didn't know the rules governing voting eligibility among people with criminal records, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
Eligibility varies from state to state. Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote, while Kentucky and Virginia don't permit people with felony convictions ever to vote except with permission from the governor, the report said.
In Colorado people serving a felony sentence or still on parole cannot vote. But people on probation, with past criminal records, in jail on a misdemeanor charge or in jail awaiting a trial can vote.
The criminal justice coalition has been working to improve public education in Colorado about voter eligibility. It recently distributed 50,000 brochures, including ones entitled "Can I Vote from Jail?" to government agencies, jails and voter registration drives.
"It's incredibly confusing," said Ben Hanna, state director of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which is conducting one of the largest voter drives in Colorado. "We have to train our circulators almost daily on ex-felon voting rights. A lot of people just don't know."
Hanna estimates his circulators registered hundreds of people with criminal pasts who thought they couldn't vote.
One problem is that people who are convicted of a felony get canceled from voter rolls and need to re-register when they've finished their sentences or parole. But they don't receive any notification of when they are eligible to re-register.
Michael Biggio, an ex-felon who signed up to vote last month, estimates that as few as 5 percent of ex-felons register. He said they face so many reductions of rights that they assume they can't vote.
Carol Peeples, of the criminal justice coalition, said the issue is politically sensitive. Some jails promote voting among eligible inmates, and some don't.
Peeples applauds the recent effort of the Denver jail administrators, who are improving their system for helping inmates vote.
Even with outreach to the inmates, fewer than one-quarter of those eligible signed up.
Connors said she chose to work with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition on the voting project because voting is "a very important constitutional right."
"I swear to uphold their rights," she said. "That's my job."
IN HIS OWN WORDS: MICHAEL BIGGIO
Michael Biggio went to prison on marijuana and assault charges in 2000 and completed his parole last week.
Last year, the 29-year-old from Littleton founded the Free Coalition, which stands for Felons Regaining Equal Employment. He runs the nonprofit from Denver and is helping ex-prisoners enter society and find work. Here's what he says about voting. His comments have been edited for space and clarity:
* I've never voted in my life. I spent the majority of my life incarcerated. While I was in the prison system there was some going back and forth and some misinformation about whether we could vote.
I argue with ex-prisoners every day. Sometimes they are heated arguments. They tell me, "No, I can't vote." The main confusion is for people on probation, who are permitted to vote.
I registered to vote a few weeks ago. I recently walked by a voter registration table and they asked me if I was registered. It was the first time I said "yes."
I'll go to the polls on Election Day. I'll get my "I voted" sticker, put it on and run around and show everybody.
Being able to vote is a big deal. When you go to prison, you get everything taken away from you. It's all about getting as many rights back as you can.
Getting back the right to vote - that's an American right. It's huge. It's the final step.
It's practical and it's symbolic as well.
Rocky Mountain News