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Getting Out the Vote From the County Jail

Route Fifty – In many states, people held without a felony conviction are eligible to vote—but confusion, fear, and a long list of logistical complications often stand in their way.

“It’s reasonably common knowledge that most states prohibit people incarcerated for a felony conviction from voting. Twenty-two states also bar people on parole and/or probation, and 12 impose various sanctions that continue post-sentence. But those restrictions rarely apply to people held in jails, who are usually either awaiting trial or serving time for misdemeanor offenses. Legally, detainees like Massey, who filled out her ballot before she was convicted and sentenced, are still eligible to vote; but practically, confusion, fear, and a long list of logistical complications often stand in their way. The exact number of people in American jails who are legally permitted to vote is unknown, but it’s safe to say that Massey is far from alone. Chris Uggen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied what he refers to as “practical disenfranchisement,” posits that “a good portion” of the U.S. jail population, which hovers at around 600,000 people, retains the right. Jail populations fluctuate constantly, which makes it especially difficult to pin down an estimate of the voting population inside. Similarly, it’s hard to know what portion of those eligible voters are not voting because they are unaware of their rights or because their rights are being denied. The 1974 Supreme Court decision O’Brien v. Skinner protects the right of certain inmates to vote in elections without interference from government. But the Court left it up to state and local jurisdictions to decide how exactly to comply with the law.

There is no national organization that is the anchoring institution to ensure that residents that happen to be in jail on Election Day never lose their voting rights,” said Nicole Porter, who leads state and local advocacy at the justice-reform group the Sentencing Project. Ongoing efforts to help potential voters in jail register or request voting materials “are very grassroots conversations,” she told me…”

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