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Voting Rights Advocates Turn to Voting Behind Bars

People serving sentences for felony convictions lose their right to vote in most circumstances. Detainees awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences retain that right, but face barriers to exercising it in many parts of the United States. So voting rights advocates are working to make voting in local jails easier, the Associated Press reports. Chicago's Cook County Jail, with more than 5,500 inmates and detainees, is one of the largest such facilities in the nation. It is one of several lockups where voting rights advocates have worked with local election and jail officials to offer voting for those held there. Similar efforts have focused on Denver, Houston, Los Angeles County and the District of Columbia. Expanding jailhouse voting is one of the latest steps to combine voting rights with criminal justice changes. The most recent survey from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, released last December, showed that 451,400 of the 636,300 people held in jails across the country had not been convicted and thus should retain their right to vote.


Voting rights for pretrial detainees and inmates serving sentences for misdemeanors were upheld in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1974, O’Brien v. Skinner, a case from New York. Despite that ruling, voting rights advocates say “de facto disenfranchisement” exists because of mistakes over eligibility and the difficulties that detainees and prisoners face in registering or voting. In a 2020 report, the Prison Policy Initiative focused on three main reasons: registration is difficult due to issues such as mail-in ballot deadlines and voter ID laws; detention does not meet the criteria for absentee voting in some jurisdictions; and the churn of the jail populations. In California, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Roel Garcia said staff members let pretrial detainees know they can register and vote and hold voter registration drives. Garcia, who oversees the inmate reception center, said the department works with groups such as the League of Women Voters to get information to the detainees about candidates and issues on the ballot. In Texas' Harris County, the move started in 2017 with the Houston Justice Coalition and an initiative known as Project Orange that has helped register thousands of detainees and taught them how to navigate the mail ballot process, Nadia Hakim, a spokeswoman for the Harris County Elections Administration, said in an email. “Previously if detainees wanted to vote, they had to do the legwork,” she said. “They had to know their registration status and make the request for the mail ballot application.”

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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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