Most of the three-quarters of a million people held in U.S. jails have the right to vote. But many of them are unable to, stymied by misinformation, limited access to registration and ballots and confusion from the officials in charge.
The result is widespread voter disenfranchisement, say experts with the Prison Policy Initiative. The advocacy organization released a report detailing voting access for jail inmates with Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a civil rights advocacy group formed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, on Friday.
“I think that the clearest situation to this would be to make voting machines available in every jail on election day,” PPI lawyer Ginger Jackson-Gleich said Thursday. She co-authored the report with Rev. S. Todd Yeary of Rainbow PUSH.
“Put simply, of the approximately 746,000 individuals in jail on any given day, most have the right to vote,” Jackson-Gleich and Yeary wrote.
That's because most people in jail haven't been convicted, but instead are awaiting trial on the charges for which they are being held. While those convicted of a felony lose their right to vote in most states for at least the time they are incarcerated, many of the people serving time in jail are serving time for misdemeanors, and most states allow people with misdemeanor convictions to vote.
Very few get to actually exercise that right, the study found. Confusion, logistical barriers and timing issues abound.
“One of the biggest barriers to voting in jail is the fact that local election officials often don't know that most people in jail can vote, and it's not unusual for such officials to provide incorrect information in response to questions about the issue,” the authors wrote
Many states rely on absentee ballots for incarcerated voters. But inmates may need to register before they can get absentee ballots, and many states require specific forms of ID for voter registration. Inmates typically have their belongings — including their drivers' licenses or other forms of identification — confiscated when they are put in jail, which means they can't meet the requirements to register.
Jails also often lack internet access, so would-be voters can't register or request absentee ballots online.
That's the case in Boise, Idaho, where Ada County detainees are shown the inmate handbook if they ask about voting.
The handbook has just two sentences on voting rights: The first says people convicted of felonies in Idaho can’t vote unless they’ve had their civil rights restored. The second says inmates “may be able to obtain an absentee voting ballot” by writing to the Ada County Elections office. It doesn't include the deadline for when absentee ballots must be requested, information on what documentation or forms a detainee needs to qualify for an absentee ballot, or any information on how to register.
The jail will provide stationary and stamps to indigent detainees who ask for the materials, but people who planned on in-person voting but were arrested or detained after the absentee ballot request deadline are out of luck.
“If someone gets arrested and can’t get out, or is convicted of a misdemeanor where a judge sentences them to jail, and they don’t file for an absentee ballot quick enough or find themselves in custody on election day, that is totally on them,” wrote Ada County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Patrick Orr in an email to The Associated Press. “The way to avoid that is to not get arrested or get sentenced to jail.”
Efforts to increase voting access for incarcerated people aren't new. A 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld the voting rights of some incarcerated people without government interference, though some lower courts have allowed more restrictive absentee voting deadlines for detainees in some states.
Recent efforts have been energized amid a renewed push for racial justice and civil rights. People who are Black or American Indian or Alaska Native are held in jails at higher rates than white, Hispanic or Asian people, according to data form the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics. Pre-trial detainees are also more likely to be from lower income households, often remaining in jail because they can't afford bail.
In Massachusetts, the local ACLU, the League of Women Voters and other groups are pressing state officials to remove voting barriers for incarcerated people, calling the status quo “unacceptable.”
“Incarcerated voters are eligible voters whose right to vote means little without true access to the ballot,” the groups wrote in a letter to Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin on Wednesday.
A few correctional systems have made progress. In Rhode Island, incarcerated people can register to vote through the department of correction, instead of having to reach election officials. In Washington D.C., voter registration materials are universally available in jails and prisons. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, which operates one of the largest jails in the country, works with outside groups to educate inmates on voting and help inmates get absentee ballots and register to vote.
In March, the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois became one of the first in the nation to operate as a jail polling station. The move was made in response to a law passed a year earlier that requires jails to allow pretrial detainees to vote. Cook County officials worked with public television station and community groups to get inmates information on candidates in addition to creating the in-jail voting system.
Still, the vast majority of detainees in America lack that access, Jackson-Gleich said Thursday.
“What success would look like is every person who is in jail either before Election Day or on Election Day has the equal opportunity as any other American to vote,” she said.