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Advocates Push Voting Access for Incarcerated

With only a few states and territories allowing currently incarcerated people to vote, activists in recent years have expanded efforts to push for more permissive rules and better access to the tools of voting, Capital B reports. When the District of Columbia extended voting rights to people incarcerated with felony convictions, it joined Maine, Vermont and Puerto Rico as the only places in the country allowing such voting while incarcerated. But more jurisdictions have worked to expand voting access in local jails, where many await trial. Grassroots organizations like Nation Outside and More Than Our Crimes, established by former and current incarcerated people, advocate for those behind bars. They have teamed up with nonprofits like The Sentencing Project to campaign for local jails to host polling stations and provide residents with information on registering and casting an absentee ballot.

Even when voting is permitted, access to absentee ballots and polling stations, and just basic awareness of voting rights, pose obstacles. When Durrel Douglas began looking into voting access in jails several years ago, he was “enraged” by the lack of legislation and activism. “No one is ringing the alarm about this,” said Douglas, a former Texas correctional officer who now serves as a national jail-based voter organizer with The Sentencing Project. “We talk about disenfranchisement all the time. We do voter registration drives all the time. Yet, here are people who — when you take a spoonful of that audience — are the people who are always stepped over, always ignored.” Some places are trying. In Houston, the Harris County Jail opened a polling station for its residents. At the Genesee County jail in Flint, Mi., a designated ambassador shuttles absentee ballots for inmates who are awaiting or are in the midst of a trial. People being held pretrial have a constitutional right to vote while in jail, said Tony Gant, the director of policy and programs operations with Nation Outside, and their access to the ballot shouldn’t be cut off because of their inability to afford bail. Nation Outside, a Michigan-based grassroots organization of former and currently incarcerated people, seeks policy and practice reform for people with criminal records. The organization has coordinated with officials in Genesee County to make sure that detainees were registered to vote. The county clerk deputized an N.O. regional coordinator to take sealed ballots between the jail and the clerk’s office, ensuring the detainees were able to cast absentee ballots. “The more our registration work went on, [Genesee Sheriff Chris Swanson] saw the value in it by just engaging folks and talking to people about their right to vote and how it’s important to be civically engaged,” said Gant.


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