Nov 4, 2022 - Politics & Policy

People in jail often can't vote, even though they're eligible

A Cook County jail detainee uses a touch screen to cast his votes at a polling place in the facility set up for early voting on October 17, 2020 in Chicago.

A Cook County jail detainee uses a touch screen to cast his votes at a polling place in the facility set up in Chicago. Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

It's nearly impossible for incarcerated people in many states to vote.

Why it matters: Many of the 11 million or so Americans booked into county jails are too poor to post bail or just serving misdemeanor sentences. Those without felony convictions are still eligible to vote — but can't exercise that right.

Details: Registered voters who were booked into county jails during 2020 voting days were 46% less likely to vote that year, compared to people who were in jail shortly after Election Day, according to a study from the Public Safety Lab at New York University.

  • The estimated negative effect was much larger for Black registered voters, who were 78% less likely to vote in 2020 if booked into county jails for the entire duration of 2020 voting days, the study found.

State of play: In 16 states, voting by absentee ballot is only permitted when a voter claims one of a short list of recognized justifications, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Zoom in: States with strict voter ID laws don't accept government-issued prison or jail ID cards to vote, even after confiscating other identification upon entering a jail.

  • A Tennessee law requires voters to cast ballots in person the first time they vote, even if they are eligible to vote by mail. This makes it impossible for a first-time voter in jail to vote.
  • Jail officials are typically ill-informed about the voting rights of those in jail. A survey in Ohio found that 30% of election officials in that state did not know whether those serving misdemeanor sentences could still vote.  

Reality check: Voting-eligible Americans who are incarcerated pretrial or serving misdemeanor sentences in county jails are legally entitled to vote while incarcerated in every state.

What they're saying: "The fundamental bottom line is that the people who are responsible for administering county jails are not fulfilling their obligation to ensure that people who are being incarcerated are able to exercise their right to vote," Anna Harvey, one of the authors of the NYU study, told Axios.

The other side: Some county jails in major metropolitan areas are working to make voting accessible.

  • The Denver Sheriff Department partners with the Denver Elections Division, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and the League of Women Voters to facilitate voting for incarcerated people. Individuals who register while incarcerated can have their ballots sent to a home address, to a community organization or to the jail.
  • Harris County, the most populous county in Texas, which covers Houston, offers polling places for incarcerated people eligible to vote.
  • Cook County, home to Chicago, saw higher voter turnout than some nearby communities in June following recent legislation that made the jail a polling place with same-day registration.
  • Maricopa County in Arizona posted bilingual information that instructed "the inmate population how to obtain a voter registration packet from Inmate Legal Services," Maricopa County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Norma Gutierrez told Axios.
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