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

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

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Most people locked in U.S. jails retain the right to vote. But many detainees still face barriers to the ballot box that exclude them from the electoral process, according to a report released last week by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit organization that researches and advocates against mass incarceration.

The report outlines four major challenges to voting for people locked in the country’s jails, and urges several reforms that the group hopes “will enable thousands of eligible voters to make their voices heard and will affirm that the voice of every voter matters.”

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1. Confusion about voter eligibility

The most pervasive barrier to voting in jail is confusion about voter eligibility. The report says that local election officials and sheriffs in the U.S. often provide conflicting or incorrect information about jail detainees’ voting rights, and suggests advocates do more outreach to those authorities to ensure they are aware of the voting rights of incarcerated people.

Most people in jail are held while awaiting trial because they can’t pay bail, not because they’ve been convicted of a crime, so their right to vote remains intact, according to the report.

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

Still, the advocacy group Chicago Votes estimates that 90% of the people held at Cook County jail retain their right to vote. The group drafted the bill that let Cook County Jail become the first jail in the country with an official polling place.

If someone you know is in Cook County Jail and wants to vote, the jail will be conducting early in-person voting on the weekends of Oct. 17-18 and Oct. 24-25 and will have four polling places on Election Day.

2. Registration woes

Even if someone in jail knows that they are eligible to vote, they’ll likely run into the next barrier: difficulty registering to vote. In 30 states, including Alabama and New York, voters have to register before Election Day, and that can be an issue for anyone who misses a deadline because they’re in jail, according to the report.

Illinois is one of the twenty states that allow same-day voter registration, so long as the person votes at the time of registration. That makes it easier for people who are in jail – and everyone – to register to vote. Those in Cook County Jail can participate in same-day voter registration at their polling location inside the facility on Election Day.

Voter ID laws add an additional barrier to people voting in jail, where people are less likely to have valid forms of identification. Many forms of ID that are acceptable to vote are confiscated from people when they are arrested. The report suggests state legislators abolish voter ID laws, or expand the list of valid forms of ID to include those provided by correctional facilities.

The report also cites mail delays, and restricted access to forms and information to check registration status as additional barriers to voting while in jail.

However, this isn’t as much of a problem for Cook County Jail, where administrators submit a list of eligible voters to the Chicago Board of Elections, which then prepares ballot applications to be distributed to those in jail.

3. Ballot-casting obstacles

The next barrier that researchers identified relates to casting a ballot while in jail. Sixteen states require a reason to request an absentee ballot, and in most of them, being in jail is not a valid reason. This effectively bars jailed people from voting, even though they have the legal right.

Again, this is a problem that doesn’t apply in Cook County, where you don’t need a reason to vote absentee. State law requires jail officials in other counties to coordinate with the local election authority to support absentee voting, according to The Sentencing Project.

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

4. “Population Churn”

The final voting barrier the report identifies is the population churn that happens in jails. With so many people filtering into and out of jail, there are bound to be barriers that arise from the disconnect between voter registration and polling places.

The average length of a jail stay is between three and four weeks, so anyone who registers to vote while free, but is in jail on Election Day, or vice versa, will have mismatching registration information and be unable to vote.

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

Looking Forward

The report recommends various other solutions to enfranchise voters in jail such as working to make jails polling places, much like how Cook County Jail is. It also suggests that election officials operate on the presumption that everyone in jail can vote, while staying mindful and transparent about the penalties for people who vote while ineligible.

The report ends with a list of strategies for advocates, legislators, election officials and sheriffs, that can help to enfranchise voters in prison and make sure their voices are heard in the electoral process.

If you want to learn more about the barriers to voting in jail, or about what you can do as an individual, you can read the Prison Policy Initiative’s report here.

If you still have any questions about the voting rights of prisoners, you can go here to visit Illinois Legal Aid’s website.