Each election cycle, thousands of eligible voters are disenfranchised because they sit in a jail cell. Pretrial detainees are presumed innocent and retain the voting rights they had before being charged with a crime. Jail inmates face significant, sometimes insurmountable obstacles to registering to vote and accessing a ballot. Advocates say that this "de facto disenfranchisement" affects the majority of the roughly 445,000 people in jail who have not been convicted of a crime, reports Stateline. Many are in jail simply because they can't afford bail. “That is creating a system where if you are rich enough, you can access your right to vote, because you'll be able to get out of pretrial detention,” said Sylvia Albert of Common Cause. “And if you aren't rich enough, then you can't access your right to vote.”
The issue doesn’t only affect those held while awaiting trial. Nationally, about 100,000 people are serving sentences for misdemeanors in jails on any given day, estimates Prison Policy Initiative. Depending on state laws, many of them retain their voting rights even while incarcerated. The burden falls particularly heavily on Black and Hispanic Americans — who, despite making up a combined 30 percent of the U.S. population, account for 52 percent of jail inmates. There is no simple fix for those in jail hoping to cast a ballot. The average jail stay is 28 days — complicating efforts for anyone to request, cast and return a ballot by mail. Being in jail is not a recognized excuse for voting absentee in some states. Incarcerated people may worry about the secrecy of their ballots and may not have access to voter guides. If they do request a ballot, unreliable jail mail may hold it up. Incarcerated people often don’t realize they’re allowed to vote. Many think their criminal charge disqualifies them. And they have other concerns beyond figuring out how to cast a ballot.