How voting rights groups are helping inmates vote from jail

If casting a ballot can already be a tricky process for regular citizens, you can imagine how difficult it is for inmates to vote—especially during the pandemic.

Most states don’t allow felons to vote while serving their sentence. With that said, people with misdemeanor sentences do have the right to vote. Two-thirds of the jail population are people held pre-trial, meaning they have been arrested but not convicted yet. A 1975 Supreme Court ruling held that eligible voters in jail can’t be denied their right to vote because they are incarcerated, but the problem with this ruling was that it didn’t lay out any requirements for providing a means to register to vote. That has made it incredibly difficult to register or obtain an absentee ballot from behind bars.

Statistics from 2018 show that as many as 470,000 people are being held in pre-jail on any given day, which means there are a lot of potential voters being kept away from the ballots. But thanks to a couple of voting rights groups, Spread the Vote and, inmates are getting their chance to vote in this crucial upcoming election via the mail.

The two organizations joined together to launch an initiative called Vote By Mail In Jail where volunteers send informational postcards to inmates across the country and train jail staff to facilitate voter registration and voting. So far, they have 152 jails with an on-site partner to help inmates register to vote.

Mail-in voting isn’t the only way inmates can vote in this year’s election—at least, in Illinois. The voting rights advocacy group, Chicago Votes, pushed for new legislation in 2019 to ensure eligible voters who are incarcerated have access to the ballot. This year, Cook County Jail, one of the largest US jails, with a population of more than 5,000 on any given day, was the first American jail to become an official polling place, operating as an election precinct for in-person voting during the March primary. And although local officials considered returning to mail-in voting for inmates because of the pandemic, Chicago Votes pushed back, insisting that in-person voting is “the most equitable way.”

“They are getting as equal access to the ballot as anybody who’s outside of jail, which is legally their right,” said Stevie Valles, executive director of Chicago Votes.

Although these initiatives are helping to ensure that the democratic process of voting is possible for all citizens, the reality is that voting remains difficult for much of the inmate population. Informative postcards like the ones being sent by the Vote By Mail In Jail can easily be confiscated by jail officials, something that happened at a jail in Arizona, and many inmates remain unaware of their right to vote. Still, it is encouraging to know that voting rights groups are managing to communicate the voting rights of inmates despite the logistical hurdles that stand in the way.

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