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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Voting Early From Jail

Andrew Travers

Almost one-fourth of the inmates in the Pitkin County Jail have voted in Tuesday’s election by casting mail-in ballots from the inside.

Percentage-wise it may be the highest jail turnout in the state. But, being that there are only 13 inmates in the Aspen facility, the three inmate voter tally unsurprisingly falls below the numbers in counties with bigger facilities.

Statewide, the jail turnout is expected to reach new heights this year, as a Denver-based group called the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) has spearheaded the first statewide voting rights education initiative for inmates and convicted criminals.

“You’ve got a lot of people in there who are eligible to vote,” said CCJRC’s re-entry coordinator Carol Peeples. “But there is a lot confusion and they are unsure of their rights, and we don’t want anyone to be disenfranchised.”

In previous election years, the extent to which inmates were given information on their right to vote was up to the initiative of jail staff. The Pitkin County Jail has long coordinated voting for those eligible in the facility and given them information on their rights or lack thereof. But some counties do nothing unless asked by an inmate.

“We are committed to making sure eligible inmates have the opportunity to vote,” Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, who oversees the jail, said this week.

In Colorado you are barred from voting only from the day you are convicted of a felony offense until you complete your prison time and any parole sentence.

So you can vote if you are in jail on a misdemeanor conviction, free on bail for any crime, if you are a pre-trial jail detainee, or have completed your sentence and parole. Colorado felons are allowed to vote while on probation.

Colorado stands among five states with the same felon-voting law, and is decidedly moderate in comparison with others around the country: 12 states permanently ban people from voting if they’ve ever been incarcerated for a felony, 18 bar them until they have completed a sentence and any probationary period.

There are 15 states with less restrictions on felon voting than Colorado — including Maine and Vermont, where convicts are not restricted from voting in any way, and are allowed to vote from prison.

Pitkin County jailer Jim DeBerge solicited the voter-eligible inmates here before the Oct. 6 registration deadline. A 25-year veteran of the jail, DeBerge has coordinated inmate voting before, but he said this was the first time an outside group sent him information packets to help register inmates in a vote-from-jail campaign.

“It just made it a step easier than it was in other years,” DeBerge said.

None of the men who voted from the jail had driver’s licenses or any of the identifying paperwork required to vote. But DeBerge printed their jail booking photos and information, which the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder’s office accepted.

Denver County Jail tried the same thing for between 30 and 40 of its inmates who wanted to vote but did not have identification. They were rejected and not allowed to register, said Major Victoria Connors, who runs the 2,000-inmate facility.

Despite the rejections, Connors said she expects to more than double her 30-some inmate vote count from four years ago.

“Response has been really positive,” Connors said, though she admitted she had hoped more inmates would express interest. Just 150 of roughly 2,000 inmates requested mail-in ballots. About 400 in the jail, she estimated, were eligible.

One of their detainee voters, she said, was a man facing 19 felony accusations, likely convictions and the rest of his life in state penitentiaries.

“This is probably the last time he’ll vote in his life,” she said. “It makes you realize what a privilege it is that you’re taking away from people.”

Early voting has also opened what some might call a loophole for would-be felons, though. What happens if you are convicted before Election Day, but voted before that conviction? You’re all right, said Colorado’s Elections Communications Manager Richard Coolidge.

“If you vote while you are not a convicted felon, your vote will count,” Coolidge said Wednesday.

Aspen Daily News