When we look at inmates and their voting rights, we see that about 4.5 million citizens both in and out of prison are currently ineligible to vote. As the 2020 presidential election grows nearer, voting rights and voter disenfranchisement are at the forefront of conversations regarding voter turnout.
One aspect of voter disenfranchisement is the laws surrounding inmate voting rights for those in jails and prisons. While voting rights for these citizens vary across states, some constants remain.
For the most part, those currently serving a sentence for a felony are not able to vote, barring most people currently in prison. However, those in jails are frequently eligible to vote although they often do not. Individuals in jails are usually serving short sentences for misdemeanors or are unable to meet bail but have not been convicted of a crime. As such, they are usually eligible to vote.
Voting Advocacy for Federal Inmates
Advocacy groups in recent years have done work eliminating some of the roadblocks that have prevented voter participation among the jailed. For example, several prisons have allowed for easier mail-in voting. This comes with its own set of complications, however, as those in jail are not usually held for a long period of time and do not always have necessary forms of ID. The frequent change in residence can be an issue for some.
Some jails, most notably Cook County Jail in Chicago, have worked to institute in-person voting by establishing the prison as a voting location. While some pushback to this has been identified – namely that a polling location would need to be available to the general public – the prevailing opinion generally requires that the state has a duty to make voting accessible to the eligible.
Restrictions on the Incarcerated
On the contrary, inmate voting rights and the laws for those in jails and prisons are complicated and restrictive. While those with felony convictions are barred from voting while serving their time across the board except for in two states, many others have complex procedures for voting even after inmates have served their time.
In 11 states, citizens who have ever had a felony conviction are unable to vote indefinitely. While 25 states have reformed voter laws since 1997, restrictions still exist most places.
A recent trend to increase the voting rights of felons has been examined by the National Conference of State Legislators. The promising trend is to create more possibilities for those who have served time to regain the ability and their right to vote.
The conversations surrounding voting rights for felons is fraught. While some argue that breaking the law should preclude a person from voting on those same laws, others are adamant that voting is a right inalienable to citizens, like freedom of speech or marriage.
Advocates of criminal justice reform also point out that involvement in the community and civic engagement frequently reduce an inmate’s likelihood of recidivism; voting could actually empower inmates to benefit their communities.
While losing voting rights could be considered an apt punishment for breaking the law, a rehabilitative approach to public safety and criminal justice might indicate that the punishment is a far less effective deterrent to future crime than the civic engagement that voting could provide.
A wide racial disparity also exists, where many more Black and Latin citizens have lost the ability to vote than other racial groups. Because voter turnout in the United States is usually relatively low, critics argue that preventing felons from voting is motivated by political or racial biases rather than a true understanding about the rights involved.
Many more citizens, for example, are married than vote regularly, indicating that this is a right we value more than voting rights, however, we do not bar inmates from marriage, even while incarcerated.
In a recent article from The Marshall Project entitled “Unlocking the Vote in Jails,“ the author refers to the all-too-familiar challenges facing finding the available resources for those individuals who are eligible to vote. There is a large percentage of individuals who actually have never lost their right to vote. We simply don’t have a system that helps incarcerated people know their voting rights. While there are many programs actively seeking ways to make it possible to vote, these programs need to be amplified and duplicated.
One program that deserves mention is Sheriff Tom Dart of the Chicago Cook County Jail. People in this jail have been voting in person since 2017. Dart is a tremendous ally for finding ways for people to use their voting rights, and believes that finding a solution begins with the will to do so.
We can be inspired by the many people and programs who are helping inmates know their voting rights and find ways to make it possible for them to vote. There is, however, another solution. Incarcerate fewer people.