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Polling Stations Inside Jails Combat Voter Disenfranchisement

by Keith Sanders

America’s carceral system strips millions of people of many privileges as citizens. Even when released, some of those privileges are not regained. Take voting, for instance. Felons – with rare exceptions in a couple of states – lose their privilege to participate in the political process that directly impacts them upon release; most are disenfranchised on parole while others cannot vote for the rest of their lives.

Not surprisingly then, the carceral system in this country effectively disenfranchises people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime. Pretrial detainees, who are legally innocent, are often restricted from voting while in jail. Even those convicted of misdemeanors are eligible to vote in most states, yet they often do not get a chance to cast a ballot while behind bars.

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that pretrial detainees – who make up the majority of the 600,000 Americans held inside local jails – are not only eligible to vote but also have the right to vote by absentee ballot, like any other American unable to vote in person.

As a result, advocates have recently made a push to set up polling locations inside jails across the county. Eight large jails provide in-person voting: Cook County Jail in Chicago, Washington D.C.’s Central Detention Facility, Denver County Jail and Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center in Denver, Harris County Jail in Houston, Los Angeles’s Century Regional Detention Facility, Will County Detention Center in Joliet, Illinois, and Genesee County Jail in Flint, Michigan.

Making polling stations available to pretrial detainees solves one common obstacle: lack of awareness. When pretrial detainees discover they can vote, they usually do. For example, roughly 25% of those in Chicago’s Cook County Jail voted in the June 2020 primary, surpassing the 20% of registered voters in Chicago who cast a ballot.

Progress is being made in several states to restore voting rights to former felons. On March 17, 2023, New Mexico lawmakers passed House Bill 4, restoring voting rights to 11,000 people on probation and parole.

Two weeks earlier, on March 3, 2023, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed legislation that that will give 50,000 people previously convicted of a felony immediate voting access. Like the New Mexico legislation, House File 28 restores voting rights to Minnesotans who have served their time, without waiting to complete probation or parole.

In Nebraska, former felons have to wait two years after completing their sentence before going to the ballot box. Legislative Bill 20, if passed, will restore that right automatically after a completed sentence. It could potentially affect some 20,000 Nebraskans.

Senate Bill 162 in Nevada, introduced by state Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas), would require jails to establish a polling place exclusively for those incarcerated. Scheible assured naysayers that the bill would merely allow pretrial detainees to exercise their right to vote; it would not allow individuals convicted of a felony to cast a ballot who had not yet had their voting rights restored. The law would also not apply to those held at Nevada state prisons.

Several states with Democratic legislative majorities hope to go even further. Oregon and Illinois lawmakers are proposing that incarcerated felons never lose the right to vote. They would join Maine, Vermont and D.C as places where individuals can always vote, even while paying their debt to society.

California is also moving in the direction of Oregon and Illinois. State Assembly Member Isaac Bryan, (D-Los Angeles), has proposed allowing people to vote while they are serving a prison sentence. His proposal needs approval from two-thirds of lawmakers before it goes to California voters to make it law.

Critics argue that allowing felons and pretrial detainees to vote will skew election outcomes. But research has shown that these groups do not vote in sufficient numbers to sway elections. [See: PLN, Sep. 2022, p.50.] Even if the incarcerated did vote in a large bloc, it is unclear whether they would compete with other blocs opposing their enfranchisement – like religious conservatives – or join them.

Sources: Bolts Magazine, NPR, Prison Policy Initiative, San Francisco Chronicle

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