In Summit County, the right to vote doesn’t stop at jailhouse bars
October 15, 2018
Ballots have been mailed out, and voters are working diligently to make sure they're registered and well informed of ballot questions ahead of the November election. For most of us, that means a quick visit to the state website, or flipping through newspapers and ballot information booklets for the most up-to-date information on candidates and propositions.
But for inmates at the Summit County Jail, the process looks a little bit different. Every election the Summit County Sheriff's Office teams up with the Clerk and Recorder's Office to assure that eligible inmates' rights to vote are protected, providing resources for those in lock-up to take part in the election.
"I firmly believe that eligible people who are incarcerated have every right that eligible free citizens have to vote," said Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, who is running for re-election. "Therefore, we've created a pathway to make sure that their rights are protected and they're able to vote."
The right to vote is often a murky area for convicted criminals. A survey recently published by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition reveals that Colorado's voter laws are widely misunderstood. According to the report, only a small majority (57 percent) of voters believe that individuals who have completed their felony conviction sentences are eligible to vote, fewer than half (43 percent) believe that people on probation or awaiting trial for misdemeanors are eligible, and fewer still (41 percent) believe that those in jail on misdemeanor convictions are eligible.
In reality most people with criminal records — including those convicted of a felony who have completed their sentence, those on probation for a felony conviction, those in jail awaiting trial or serving a misdemeanor sentence — are eligible to vote in Colorado. Only inmates currently serving a sentence for a felony conviction, either in prison or on parole, are ineligible. This means that virtually all of the inmates at the Summit County Jail, along with county jails around the state, are eligible.
"In Colorado there's a very wide range of people who have suffered convictions who remain eligible to vote," said District Attorney Bruce Brown. "It's in the minority of states that have a very large pool of people on probation or parole that are allowed to vote."
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In Summit County, officials are working to make sure that inmates are aware of their rights and that they have the opportunity to vote if they want to. According to Summit County Clerk and Recorder Kathleen Neel, the process is fairly straightforward.
Inmates are informed of their eligibility by jail staff, either during intake or by deputies patrolling the jail, and all interested inmates have to do is ask, said FitzSimons. Inmates will either make a request via the jail's "kite" system — essentially an electronic messaging system built into jail kiosks for inmates to communicate with supervisors — or by simply asking a deputy.
From there, the clerk's office will send over registration forms and drop off or pick up ballots. The clerk will even help to secure ballots from other areas if the inmate lives outside the county.
Inmates are given ballot informational booklets, or "blue books," to help inform them before voting. Additionally, inmates are allowed to watch TV, have daily access to the Summit Daily News and are allowed to subscribe to other publications while in jail to help inform their decisions, said detentions commander David Bertling.
"We try and make it as easy as possible to register and vote for everyone that's eligible," said Neel. "For those in the jail it's a little more difficult to register, so we try to reach out to them."
Neel said that while most inmates don't utilize the program, there are typically a couple of individuals who want to vote, especially on bigger ticket issues such as the gubernatorial race. So far this year, she's helped to register two inmates who received their ballots on Monday. But like all Coloradans, inmates at the jail have through Election Day to register and vote.
"It's not that complex," said Neel. "We just really want to make sure that as many people who are eligible are able to vote in this election as possible. Every citizen, no matter the circumstance, should have the opportunity to vote if they're eligible."
Following the Rules
Aside from inmates trying to vote from jail, other voters often experience difficulties or confusion when voting. District Attorney Brown is warning voters in Summit County to follow the rules, and make sure you vote properly.
Among common issues for county officials are voters turning in more than one ballot, filling out ballots that aren't theirs or voting in the wrong location.
"One of the big problems we face in resort communities is that people have a difficult time distinguishing where they are residents for the purpose of voting," said Brown. "Having a second home doesn't automatically qualify you as a resident."
When deciding where to vote, Brown said you should consider where you spend most of your time, what address you list when filing taxes, where your car is registered and the listed address on your driver's license for the most likely location. Additionally, Brown emphasized that each individual is only allowed to vote once. If you suspect for some reason that your mail-in ballot wasn't received, check with the clerk's office before filling out another.
Finally, Brown noted that filling out another person's ballot — such as a student off at college, a deceased family member or ex-spouse — is strictly prohibited as well.
Following the election, the clerk's office provides the district attorney's office with a list of questionable ballots, all of which are investigated to see whether or not election law has been violated. In most instances, violating election laws is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, said Brown.
Brown also said that the DA's Office would have a presence at polling locations on Election Day to assure that no illicit politicking is taking place.
"This stuff happens all the time," said Brown. "My message is that people can only vote in one place, can only vote once, and can only vote for themselves."