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Coalition Fights to Ensure Jailed Voters in Arizona Can Vote

by Scott Grammer

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that jail detainees who are under no voting disability — which essentially means that they have not yet been convicted of a felony and lost their right to vote — must be allowed the opportunity to vote pursuant to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. But Arizona, and in particular Maricopa County, still doesn’t get it. Of the approximately 14,000 people in Arizona jails, about 60% are eligible to vote.

In 2020, a coalition composed of voting advocates, public defenders and people who were previously incarcerated, are trying to ensure that these people are allowed to vote, starting with Maricopa County.

During the 2008 election cycle, Joe Watson was in jail in Maricopa County but had not yet been convicted of a felony. When he asked guards for a ballot, he was laughed at. In a March 16, 2020 story, The Intercept quotes Watson as saying, “They just ignored me. There was nothing I could do. I was just denied my right to vote.”

During the 2018 midterms, Yonas Kahsai was in jail in Maricopa County and still legally able to vote. While in jail, he asked for an absentee ballot. First he was told he couldn’t have one, but then that decision was reversed.

Nevertheless, Kahsai never received his ballot. He later learned that it had arrived in the mail, but he never got it because it was too big, according to the Maricopa jail’s mail-size limitations. The coalition has created a three-page policy of procedures it would like to see adopted, which includes having election-related mail marked as “legal mail,” to eliminate problems like one that disenfranchised Kahsai.

If you can afford bail, you probably won’t be in jail awaiting trial during an election. It’s mostly those who can’t afford bail who will be there. Blacks and Native Americans in Arizona are often unable to pay bail, and so they are overrepresented in jail populations.

The Intercept quotes Dana Paikowsky, a legal fellow at the Campaign Legal Center, as saying, “These are exactly the kinds of voters that our system has excluded through the course of American history. In Arizona and across the country, the vast majority of people in jails are there because they cannot afford to pay bail. Which means that in the case of voting, your bail functions like a poll tax: The only thing preventing you from accessing the ballot is an inability to pay.”

The Intercept contacted all 15 counties in Arizona and asked about their plans for Election Day. Only eight responded. Of those, only Gila County and Yuma County had some plan for ensuring that inmates were aware of their right to vote. They will be putting up flyers and posters, and will facilitate voting via absentee ballot. Two other counties said they tell prisoners about voting during intake.


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