SHOULD INMATES VOTE?

SHOULD INMATES VOTE?

Unlocking The Vote In Jails The majority of the 745,000 people held in local jails can vote,
but few do. Advocates say it’s voter suppression on a national scale.

SHOULD INMATES VOTE?

In June, Tina Kingshill and a team of volunteers fanned out into Harris County Jail, a sprawling multi-building complex in downtown Houston. Clad in face masks, the team worked their way through the housing facilities, slipping vote-by-mail applications to detainees through a slot in the thick metal cell block doors.

The Marshall Project partnered with Slate to conduct the first-of-its-kind political survey of people in prisons and jails around the country. Read more about what interventions they say might have kept them from landing behind bars and excerpts from the responses.

The pandemic had shut visitors and other volunteers out of the jail in March. But in June, the sheriff invited Kingshill and her team back, so they could continue their work making sure people in the jail can vote. This year, they have registered more than 1,000 people in the jail and have passed out more than 580 absentee ballot applications.

A NATIONWIDE PUSH

Across the country, volunteers and community organizations are working around the clock to make sure people in jail will be able to vote in this election. They’ve built alliances with county sheriffs, county clerks, and local election boards. When the pandemic barred outsiders from entering the jails, they came up with creative ways to continue their work. Organizers in Michigan, for example, convinced some jail officials to play a PSA about voting on the jail’s closed-circuit televisions.

There’s been a groundswell of support for laws restoring voting rights to people coming out of prison. But the vast majority of the 745,000 people held in local jails never lost the right to vote, since they are awaiting trial or are convicted of misdemeanors. Still, voting from jail is rare. Felony disenfranchisement laws and misinformation lead many people in jail to believe they cannot vote. Most jails don’t actively provide the necessary information to get people registered, voting rights advocates say. Logistical challenges abound. And this year, with some courts closed due to COVID-19, many more people could find themselves sitting in jail on Election Day.

A CLAIM OF VOTOR SUPPRESSION

Many of the people working to unlock the vote in jails say the result amounts to voter suppression on a national scale. People in jail also disproportionately come from communities of color that are heavily policed. The overexposure to the criminal justice system weakens these communities’ political power and makes people less likely to vote, now and in the future, research shows.

“We do start to think about those neighborhoods losing more voters than others,” said Ariel White, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “And that concentration really starts to matter in, for example, local elections,” which can sometimes hinge on a few hundred votes.

Moreover, people in jail have firsthand knowledge of the inner workings of the criminal justice system, but many are unable to hold the system’s elected officials—sheriffs, judges, and prosecutors—accountable on Election Day.

Because jails are under local control, voter outreach efforts vary by county.

In Michigan, the Voting Access for All Coalition held a webinar for county clerks to find ways to register jailed voters across the state. They’re hoping to reach 5,000 people.


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1 Comment

  1. Felons shouldn’t be voting. With the likes of the Soros backed DAs the problem is the reduction of many felonies to misdemeanors as in San Francisco, Portland, Sacramento, Seattle, Atlanta, Los Angeles, et al.

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