Colorado has continued to improve access to voting in the past two years, but advocates are urging an end to the state’s disenfranchisement of people who’ve been convicted of felonies.
In a different time, small improvements in voting access in Colorado would seem “niche” to wider observers. But baseless accusations of widespread voter fraud spurred by former President Donald Trump after his 2020 loss have politicized any change to elections and voting, said Jen Samano, campaign strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
In 2021 and 2022, Colorado lawmakers made it easier to vote if someone is temporarily homeless from a disaster, expanded multilingual ballot access and established an electronic voting option for people with disabilities.
“Because of the political and cultural circumstances there is way more importance and focus on any changes to voting rights,” Samano said. “It’s just a celebration to have (those bills) pass, to be honest. At the same time, we have seen some extremist bills.”
In the last two years, Republicans in Colorado’s legislature proposed bills that ran the gamut of restricting voting access, from more aggressive voter roll purges to requiring strict voter ID at the polls, to abolishing the state’s vote-by-mail system, which had bipartisan support in 2013. All were rejected by the legislature’s Democratic majority in committees with occasional agreement from a small number of Republicans.
“I don’t think we’re immune to these attempts to degrade our really great system and to make voting more difficult,” said Cameron Hill, associate director of Common Cause Colorado.
Access for voters with disabilities
Colorado is among a handful of states creating or piloting limited online voting for people with disabilities, including Nevada, West Virginia and North Carolina, where a federal judge ordered the state to add online voting options for some types of disabilities.
Colorado’s new online voting option is largely meant to provide additional options for voters who are blind or have limited vision. The system is the same used by Colorado military service members and permanent overseas residents.
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This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
In 2021, Democrats in the state legislature expanded multilingual ballot access, requiring the state, and some local counties, to create a voter hotline to assist people whose primary language isn’t English. Starting with this November’s midterm election, the law requires state and local election officials to provide the hotline in any language, aside from English, where it is spoken by at least 2,000 citizens 18 years or older. Alternatively, the requirement goes into effect when 2.5% of the eligible voting population speak another language and cannot speak English well, according to the law.
The law also requires local election officials to make available sample ballots of qualifying languages. New requirements under the 2021 law expand language access requirements laid out in the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires language assistance be provided should a local voting-age population exceed 5%.
Felony voting rights
Hill said a goal of Colorado Common Cause, criminal justice reform organizations and other voting rights groups in the next year or two is legislative action or a ballot initiative to fully restore the voting rights of people serving prison sentences for felonies. If successful, Colorado would join only Maine, Vermont and Washington, D.C., in allowing any resident citizen over age 18 to vote regardless of criminal convictions or incarceration.
“It’s possible. There’s an appetite,” Hill said. “We have some pretty progressive lawmakers and we’re on track to get several more.”
In 2019, the state restored the voting rights of parolees. Once out of prison, people with felonies need to reregister to vote.
Educating the formerly incarcerated about their restored right to vote remains one of the biggest obstacles for criminal justice reform advocates.
“The information gap is the biggest problem,” said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “The dominant perspective is that once you have a criminal record you cannot vote.”
One problem is the state’s out-of-date voter forms for the formerly incarcerated. A March report from The Marshall Project highlighted how forms still in use two years after their rights were restored told parolees they could not vote when they in fact could.
And having a partial restriction on voting rights in the criminal justice system can confuse and disenfranchise those who are working their way through the system even if they technically are allowed to vote. People awaiting trial and serving time in jail for misdemeanors still retain the right to vote but that right can change from one day to another, Donner said.
“We seem to have a foot in two worlds in a lot of different ways,” Donner said.
A 2018 elections rule from then-Secretary of State Wayne Williams encouraged county clerks and sheriffs to work together to develop plans on how they’ll make sure people in jails who are eligible to vote can, according to Colorado Newsline.
Donner said, from her organization’s experience in registering people to vote in Denver and Arapahoe counties, those plans aren’t enough because it takes resources to vote from jail and there isn’t a strong enough enforcement mechanism.
Restoring full voting rights for people who have been convicted of a felony would end, or alleviate, the confusion surrounding voting and the criminal justice system in Colorado, she said.
Conspiracy theories and election security
Colorado has been more proactive than most states in addressing the threat to election security posed by conspiracy theories advanced by former President Trump and right-wing media that have led to bizarre attempts to disrupt and harass the work of local election officials.
In June, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed two election security bills into law. One, The Election Official Protection Act, increased criminal penalties for harassing and intimidating election workers. The law makes it illegal to publish election workers’ personal information and provides exemptions to the state’s open records law to prohibit that information’s disclosure for the families of election workers.
Polis also signed the The Colorado Election Security Act, which makes it a felony for election officials and workers to knowingly publish confidential information about voting systems. The law mandates additional training for election workers and officials and makes it a felony for tampering with voting equipment.
The latter legislation came in response to the actions of two Mesa County election officials charged with breaching election security to help conspiracy theorists prove a false claim about voting systems being compromised. Tina Peters and her deputy clerk, Belinda Knisley, were accused of helping an unauthorized person access and make copies of voting machine hard drives in spring 2021 and tampering with voting equipment. Knisley pleaded guilty on Aug. 25 to three misdemeanors and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, according to Colorado Public Radio.
The breach resulted in login information and forensic images of voting machine hard drives to be published online by election conspiracy theorists, according to CNN.
Peters has called the investigation politically motivated as she sought the Republican nomination for secretary of state this year. She finished last in the June primary of three candidates.
Samano said the ongoing investigation involving Peters has put her organization and others on alert.
“We’re trying to keep our eyes on any extremist county clerks,” she said. “We’re tracking the voting experience to make sure they’re equal and uniform.”
Separate from the Peters saga, Colorado lawmakers in March banned firearms within 100 feet of polling places and ballot dropboxes.
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