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Coronavirus Pandemic Could Vastly Reduce Prison Voting

In the months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic being declared, voting rights activists were gaining momentum in helping those in jail register and arrange to cast ballots. In the aftermath of the pandemic’s outbreak, activists now worry that eligible voters in prisons and jails will be prevented from voting.

The United States Supreme Court has declared that persons in jail have a right to vote so long as they are not convicted felons or otherwise ineligible to vote under state law. There are about 470,000 people detained in America’s jails, making them a large bloc of voters.

Jailed voters “have the most direct vantage of how elected officials — judges, prosecutors, sheriffs — are actually doing their jobs,” said Dana Paikowsky, a jail voting expert at the Campaign Legal Center. “From the perspective of democratic accountability, this is one of the most important segments of our electorate.”

Several jurisdictions recognize this and have acted to assure jailed voters are able to have their vote counted. Typically, such voters cast absentee ballots. Jurisdictions like Chicago have taken a more direct approach.

A law that became effective in January 2020 requires Cook County to set up a polling location in its jail. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, election workers and volunteers brought about 40 voting machines into the jail. Civics classes were being taught to pre-trial detainees, and they were being registered to vote. As the Illinois primary was approaching in March, the plan was to run a voting precinct in the jail for two weekends. The first weekend went off as planned, but then the pandemic hit.

Cook County Jail officials switched gears. The jail started “devoting every available resource to the critical task of protecting our staff, detainees, and the public from the spread of this global pandemic,” said spokesman Matt Walberg.

Since the 2016 election, voting rights groups in places such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Arizona have registered detainees to vote. Their efforts, however, require close contact not allowed under social distancing or in jails closed to non-essential staff. With a paradigm looking inevitable in the post-pandemic world, voting rights activists fear a regression to the past.

“We could end up back where we were before 2016, when few to no people in jail had a practical right to vote,” Mike Brickner, the Ohio state director of All Voting Is Local, told The Marshall Project.

Some advocates are looking for alternatives to assure jailed persons can vote. “We may have to ask defense lawyers to get information into the jail to their clients,” said Alex Gulotta, the Arizona state director of the same group.

There is no doubt that voting from jail is a right some pre-trial detainees are unaware they possess. Even when they know they have a right to vote, getting registered or obtaining an absentee ballot can be difficult. This is especially so in jails where only postcards can be received.