Will inmates housed at the La Plata County jail weigh in on next month’s Durango City Council election or whether fluoride should remain in the city’s drinking water?
Time will tell.
But one thing is certain: The jail this year plans to make inmates aware of the election, and if eligible electors want to vote, City Clerk Amy Phillips said she will personally deliver ballots to the jail.
“I’ve got extra ballots here, and would be able to go over to the jail within a couple of hours of them needing me to come over,” Phillips said.
Mail ballots will go out Friday or Saturday to eligible city voters. They must be returned by 7 p.m. April 4 to be counted.
Voters are being asked to choose from five candidates running for three open seats on City Council and decide whether they want fluoride to remain in the city’s drinking water.
Jail officials and the city Clerk’s Office are making an effort to include inmates after receiving inquiries from The Durango Herald, which published a story last year saying only one inmate has requested a ballot during the past 20 years at the jail.
At the time, the jail had 144 prisoners, of which only two were ineligible to vote under state law because they were serving time for felony convictions. The rest may have been eligible to vote if they met residency requirements.
But no one conducted voter outreach at the jail, including jail staff, election officials, get-out-the-vote organizations or candidates.
Election experts said jail inmates are among the most disenfranchised electors – along with homeless people or senior citizens in nursing homes – even though their lives may be more impacted by the policies and candidates being considered than most people.
For example, the sheriff oversees the jail, the district attorney prosecutes criminal cases, and politicians make the laws and sentencing guidelines – all of which are elected positions.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Brian Birk said election notices will be posted inside the jail. If inmates express an interest in voting, he will pass that information on to Phillips.
Some inmates may be registered to vote, in which case their ballots will be sent to their home address. Family members are able to deliver those ballots to registered individuals in the jail, Phillips said.
Last year, the Denver Elections Division, Denver Sheriff’s Office and Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition worked to register voters at Denver County Jail.
In Colorado, inmates serving time for a misdemeanor offense have a right to vote. Inmates also have a right to vote if they’re awaiting adjudication or sentencing.
Those serving time for a felony conviction or who are on parole for a felony conviction can’t vote. But they can register to vote after completing their sentence.