The past midterm election brought voters to the polls in huge numbers. In fact, voter turnout for the 2018 midterms was over 50 percent of the voting-eligible population, which is the highest voter turnout for a midterm election in over a century.
But for a significant portion of U.S. citizens, voting wasn’t an option.
Voting in jail is a right mainly granted to inmates convicted of misdemeanors, or those who currently reside in pre-trial detention. Many states revoke a Felon’s right to vote, and that fact has sparked much debate.
Should Prisoners Vote?
The general idea behind inmate disenfranchisement is that if prisoners vote, then those who have broken the law will be able to shape and change the laws to their liking. The majority of Americans do not believe that voting in jail is a right that should be given to all inmates.
However, there has been a growing trend in recent decades to reinstate voting rights for former inmates. According to a Cambridge study only 31 percent of Americans endorse allowing people currently in prison to vote, while 60 percent favor allowing those who have exited prison to vote.
One of the highlights of this past midterm was the approved Florida Amendment 4. This amendment was written to “automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole and probation.”
ProCon.org explains that only two states currently extend full voting rights to those with felony convictions (Maine and Vermont). In these states, voting rights are guaranteed even while the citizen is in prison.
The majority of states allow voting rights to be granted back to released prisoners after both the completion of their sentence plus parole/probation. However, sometimes additional action (like a Governor’s pardon) is required to regain voting rights. In addition, there are 10 states in which felons lose their vote permanently (NV, WY, AZ, IA, KY, TN, MS, AL, FL, DE).
Because these rules are so different from state to state, many inmates may hear conflicting messages regarding their ability to vote. Some may not even bother trying to figure out their eligibility, let alone the specific procedures required to do so from their incarceration facility.
An Informed Voting Base
Take the case of Dustin Cordova of Denver CO who said, “I didn’t know I could vote, period, because I had been in jail for felonies.”
According to the local Channel 4 CBS Denver news, Cordova had served his time for his past felonies and didn’t know that he could vote while in jail for other charges. The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition had to provide Cordova with information before he knew that he could vote in the 2018 midterm.
Information is extremely important when it comes to voting, especially when voting in a correctional environment, where information doesn’t flow as freely.
And though there are jails that make the effort to inform inmates when they are able to vote, sometimes that information is not available to inmates. According to the Oregon Public Broadcasting group, a 2016 investigation by Disability Rights Washington “found that only a handful of Washington state’s 38 county jails have a policy for letting inmates vote and few of those facilities actually follow those procedures.” This resulted in thousands of eligible voters being wrongfully disenfranchised.
The accessibility of information for prisoners — sometimes provided through communication with outside human rights groups — is essential to insuring that eligible voters know if voting in jail is possible for them.
Eligibility is only half of the inmate-voting question, however.
In order to be an informed voter, a person has to be exposed to the issues and the positions of the available candidates. This requires research on the part of the voter, and non-biased research is commonly conducted by visiting a library, reading the news, or by searching on the internet.
Unsurprisingly, internet access is often very limited for inmates.
Technology and the Voter
In a past blog post, we stressed the importance of inmates maintaining contact with their family and friends. It’s good for the inmates, their families, and society at large because consistent communication reduces recidivism.
Likewise, ensuring that eligible inmates have all the information they need to vote is also a public good.
The decisions that are made during elections have long-lasting effects. That being the case, many inmates want to be sure that their interests and the interests of their children are recognized.
Remember Dustin Cordova? Knowing that he could vote in jail not only surprised him, it also gave him a sense of responsibility. Channel 4 CBS Denver reported Cordova saying, “My kids are growing up, and I can have an input into their future so it was a shocker to know that I could vote.”
Whatever side of the inmate-voting debate you fall on, it’s vitally important that our nation’s incarceration facilities can deliver what the law requires. Should a state require substantive voting access for inmates, Encartele will be there ready to help jails and prisons provide it.