How Do You Vote in Prison and Jail?

For the most part, you don’t.

Donald Trump over a prisoner's bunk at the Veterans Unit of the Cybulski Rehabilitation Center on May 3, 2016 in Enfield, Connecticut.
Television news features Donald Trump over a prisoner’s bunk in the veterans unit of the Cybulski Rehabilitation Center on May 3 in Enfield, Connecticut.

John Moore/Getty Images

People who are incarcerated find creative ways to do things the rest of us don’t have to think much about. They invent elaborate recipes using only the snacks available in the commissary. They make hair gel out of Jolly Ranchers and hot water. When locked in solitary confinement, they use a system of strings and weights to communicate with each other. But how do they vote in elections?

Well, they mostly don’t. In almost every state, the law states that incarcerated people are not allowed to cast ballots. In fact, most states even impose voting restrictions on former prisoners who are out on parole, and a few states—Kentucky, Florida, Iowa, and Virginia—have lifetime disenfranchisement laws for anyone who has ever been to prison. These laws combine to prohibit an estimated 6.1 million Americans from voting, per one October 2016 estimation. There is a movement among criminal justice advocates to restore voting rights for felons, but the politics of reform on this issue are notoriously complicated and again, vary state by state. 

There are two states that currently afford prison inmates the right to vote while in confinement: Maine and Vermont. Inmates in both states vote through absentee ballots rather than on-site polling places. Utah, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts also used to allow prisoners to vote, but they don’t anymore. In Massachusetts the change came after a group of inmates tried to form a political action committee in 1997 pressing for better health care and less expensive phone calls, leading then-Gov. Paul Cellucci to propose a constitutional amendment to prohibit inmate voting that passed in 2000.

So that’s prisons. Local jails are a different story, because most of the people confined in them on any given day are in pretrial detention—meaning they haven’t yet been convicted of whatever crime they’ve been arrested for—or they’ve been convicted of misdemeanors. While there are a handful of states that ban people serving time for misdemeanors from voting, it’s fair to say that most jail inmates and detainees—roughly 750,000 Americans at any given time—are legally allowed to cast ballots as long as they are otherwise eligible. (They will also most likely do so via absentee ballots, though it’s technically possible for jails to have polling places on-site.)

That doesn’t mean a lot of them end up actually doing it, though there are jails around the country that make a special effort to encourage inmates to exercise their right. In the Cook County facility in Chicago, the largest jail in America, a voter drive effort organized this year by lawyer Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley has resulted in about 1,000 new registered voters and 1,600 absentee ballots cast. Mbekeani-Wiley, who works with the Metropolitan Board of the Chicago Urban League and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, started bringing volunteers to the jail last spring on a weekly basis to register inmates, and then hand-delivered registration forms to the county clerk’s office. Jail officials advertised the effort by putting up posters.

Other jails that are known for helping inmates exercise their right to vote include those in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In Suffolk County, Massachusetts, volunteers from the League of Women Voters this year helped register about 300 inmates (out of a total jail population of about 1,600); in New York, jail officials distributed voter registration forms and informational fliers in the facilities’ public areas, including law libraries and barber shops. Such efforts are outliers, however, and typically depend on the initiative of outside advocacy groups.

Explainer thanks Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform advocacy group; Charles Sullivan, president of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants; and Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley.

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