Locked Up and Locked out of Voting

Thousands of eligible voters who are in jail aren’t given the opportunity to cast their ballots.
(Photos: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images; Chris Leschinsky/Getty Images)
Oct 11, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

It’s common knowledge that state laws across the country bar millions of people with current or past felony convictions from voting. One out of every 40 adults in the U.S. will be unable to vote Nov. 8 because of such restrictions, according to a report published last week by The Sentencing Project. Yet there’s another, largely overlooked population we hear much less about that is also effectively disenfranchised: the 11 million people who cycle in and out of U.S. jails every year.

The majority of the roughly 700,000 people detained in jails at any given time have not been convicted yet and are awaiting trial behind bars because they can’t afford bail or have been recently arrested and will soon pay their bail and be released. Those who stay longer—about 300,000—are serving sentences for misdemeanor offenses, according to Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan research and advocacy nonprofit. Felony disenfranchisement laws don’t apply to the majority of these people, meaning they are eligible to vote. But few are given the opportunity.

“In virtually every state, since prisoners can’t vote, it just hasn’t occurred to most people—including jail wardens—that they have a population that’s eligible to do that,” Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, told TakePart. “We’re missing hundreds of thousands of votes in every election.”

Efforts to reach voters in jail are few. Experts like Mauer attribute this largely to logistical complications. Implementing a successful voter registration and absentee ballot collection system is a challenge in spaces where jail administrators are juggling numerous other priorities.

“It’s really a very chaotic environment,” said Charles Sullivan, president of the Washington, D.C.–based prison reform organization Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants. In spite of that chaos, Sullivan emphasized that implementing jail-based voting programs “can be done.”

Sullivan’s organization has worked for the past 15 years to implement one of the country’s few successful jail voting programs. After starting to register detained voters in 2000, Sullivan began testifying before the D.C. Board of Elections, alerting board members that eligible voters in jail were being overlooked. By 2004, CURE had convinced the board and the jail administration to work together to train volunteers, register eligible voters behind bars, and help detainees fill out absentee ballots.

“It’s been a successful collaboration,” Rudolph McGann, a staff attorney with the board, told TakePart. “The jail administration has been very accommodating.”

In spite of the success of building that relationship, the number of ballots retrieved from D.C.’s two jails remains low. Karla Garcia, the board’s liaison specialist, said she retrieves between 20 and 80 absentee ballots from the jails each election. While McGann attributed the low turnout to a lack of interest or desire to register, Sullivan disagreed, arguing that there needs to be a proactive effort to educate detainees about their right to vote.

Sullivan, who grew up in Alabama and is 76, draws a parallel between trying to get out the vote in jails to the situation prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Disenfranchised citizens “were very fearful in the South,” he said. “It’s the same in jail. They don’t know if there will be reprisal against them.”

Logistical complications and lack of civic education programs aside, some believe the absence of jail voting programs stems from a more nefarious source.

“There are so many ways to disenfranchise people, and one of the best ways is to not let them know that they can vote in the first place,” said John Lieb, former director of the Jewish Employment and Vocational Services program in Philadelphia. “Jails are the best place to suppress the vote by just not telling them they can do it.”

Lieb, who facilitates vocational programs in jails with JEVS, found himself wondering after George W. Bush’s narrow victory in the 2000 presidential election if any incarcerated people could vote. He did some research and discovered that inmates in county jails in Pennsylvania were eligible to register.

“There are 60-some counties in Pennsylvania,” Lieb told TakePart. “That’s a lot of people who can vote.”

Working with the Ex-Offenders Association of Pennsylvania, Lieb launched what he calls a “Civics 101” program in Philadelphia’s six jails, bringing in formerly incarcerated people to talk to inmates about the significance of voting and providing them with voter registration forms. He estimates that roughly 100 people every month registered to vote through his classes, which he administered for six years. Lieb’s program, unlike the D.C. program, focused on registration rather than facilitating the absentee ballot process. Because of the high turnover in jails, he is most invested in making sure that people are registered to vote once they’re back in their own neighborhoods, then connecting them to reentry resources that help them vote after their release.

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“The absentee ballot never really got off the ground because it’s another effort [jail] administrators would have to make,” said Lieb. “It’s a cumbersome thing to do, even in the best of situations.”

In spite of these challenges and the low number of completed ballots in the D.C. jail system, Mauer of The Sentencing Project believes if the effort to reach voters in jail were undertaken in earnest nationally, turnout would grow.

“There really can be a ripple effect,” he said. “The more people see others in jail take advantage of the voting process, those numbers would start to move up.”

Advocates also see voting as a tool for easing reentry to the community after being detained. Maintaining ties to one’s community through civic participation is one way to “help people get engaged with the community,” Mauer said.

Charles Thornton, the former director of the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs in D.C., has been dedicated to encouraging voter participation among formerly incarcerated people and jail detainees since his release from prison in 1990. Because he had a felony conviction, his right to vote wasn’t restored until he was released. But that right is something he cherishes, and he has spent the last 26 years making sure D.C. residents in similar situations do too.

“This is the civil rights movement of the 21st century,” Thornton told TakePart. “This is how men and women can fight the barriers that incarceration brings—with their vote.”