Most people in prison can vote. Here’s why many don’t.


In this Saturday, March 14, 2020 photo, Cook County Jail inmates Vincent Smith, left, and Loan L’ela participate in the early voting for the March 17 Illinois primary at Chicago Jail. (AP Photo / Charles Rex Arbogast)

Injustice Watch is in partnership with The TRiiBE to provide stories, perspectives and critical information on the 2020 elections. Click here for Injustice Watch’s Guide to Judicial Elections.

Most people locked up in American prisons retain the right to vote. But many detainees still face obstacles at the ballot box that exclude them from the electoral process, according to a published report last week by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that researches and advocates against mass incarceration.

The report outlines four major challenges for the vote of those locked in the country’s prisons and calls for several reforms which, the group hopes, “will allow thousands of eligible voters to have their voices heard and affirm that the voice of every voter. account “.

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1. Confusion over the eligibility of voters

The most common barrier to voting in prison is confusion over the eligibility of voters. The report says local election officials and sheriffs in the United States often provide conflicting or incorrect information about inmate voting rights, and suggests that advocates do more outreach with those authorities to ensure they know the voting rights of incarcerated persons.

Most people in jail are held pending trial because they cannot post bail, not because they have been convicted of a crime, so their right to vote remains intact, report says .

Every state, except Maine and Vermont, bans voting for people serving felony sentences, while six states, including Illinois, ban people serving felony sentences from voting, according to the report.

Yet the Chicago Votes advocacy group estimates that 90% of those held at Cook County Jail retain their right to vote. The group drafted the bill which enabled Cook County Jail to become the country’s first prison with an official polling station.

If someone you know is in Cook County Jail and wants to vote, the jail will conduct an early in-person vote on the weekends of October 17-18 and October 24-25 and will have four polling stations. vote on polling day.

2. Registration problems

Even if someone in prison knows they have the right to vote, they will likely run into the next hurdle: difficulty registering to vote. In 30 states, including Alabama and New York, voters must register before election day, and that can be a problem for anyone missing a deadline because they’re in jail, according to the report.

Illinois is one of twenty states that allow same-day voter registration, as long as the person votes at the time of registration. This makes it easier for people in prison – and everyone else – to register to vote. Those in the Cook County Jail can participate in same-day voter registration at their polling station inside the facility on election day.

Voter ID laws add an additional barrier to people voting in prison, where people are less likely to have valid identification. Many pieces of identification acceptable for voting are confiscated from people upon arrest. The report suggests that state lawmakers either repeal voter identification laws or expand the list of valid identification to include those provided by correctional facilities.

The report also cites mail delays and restricted access to forms and information to verify registration status as additional barriers to voting in prison.

However, this is not as much of an issue for the Cook County Jail, where administrators submit a list of eligible voters to the Chicago Board of Elections, which then prepares the ballots for distribution to inmates.

3. Obstacles to the ballot

The next obstacle identified by the researchers concerns voting in prison. Sixteen states require a reason for requesting a postal vote, and in most of them, being in jail is not a valid reason. This effectively prohibits imprisoned people from voting, even if they are legally entitled to do so.

Again, this is an issue that does not apply in Cook County, where you don’t need a reason to vote away. State law requires prison officers from other counties to coordinate with the local electoral authority to support postal voting, according to The condemnation project.

The report also listed limited access to voter guides as a barrier to effective voting. Voter’s guides such as Injustice Watch Judicial Election Guide – which we’re sending out to eligible voters at Cook County Jail – has a full list of all the judges who will be on the ballot this year.

4. “Torment of the population”

The final barrier to voting that the report identifies is the population churn that occurs in prisons. With so many people entering and leaving prison, there are bound to be barriers that arise from the disconnect between voter registration and polling stations.

The average length of a prison stay is between three and four weeks, so anyone who registers to vote while free, but is in prison on election day, or vice versa, will have information registration that does not match and will not be able to vote.

The report suggests that a solution to this could be to allow anyone who requested a postal ballot to be sent to the prison, and who is now released, to obtain and submit a registration affidavit. from his local polling station and vote there.

Looking forward

The report recommends a variety of other solutions to empower voters in prison, such as working to create voting places in prisons, much like the Cook County Jail. He also suggests that election officials assume that anyone in prison can vote, while remaining alert and transparent to penalties for people who vote when they are not eligible.

The report ends with a list of strategies for lawyers, lawmakers, election officials and sheriffs that can help empower voters in prison and ensure their voices are heard in the electoral process.

If you would like to learn more about the barriers to voting in prison, or what you can do as an individual, you can read the report from the Prison Policy Initiative. here.

If you still have questions about inmate voting rights, you can go here to visit the Illinois Legal Aid website.

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