Polling Stations in Jails Provide Opportunity for Eligible Pre-Trial Detainees to Vote

Interview with Wanda Bertram, communications strategist with the Prison Policy Initiative, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

A new report from the Sentencing Project found that 4.6 million people will be barred from voting in the 2022 midterm election due to a felony conviction. At the same time, Republican party initiated voter suppression laws and GOP-aligned armed militia groups’ presence at polling places designed to intimidate voters perceived to be voting for Democratic candidates, is growing in states across the U.S.

But another report highlights a bright spot in voting access in an unlikely place — some of the country’s largest jails. In addition to holding people with very short sentences, most jails are filled with people who have not yet been convicted of the crime for which they’re being held, many of whom are eligible to vote.

Now jails in Houston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and Joliet, Illinois, have established polling stations inside these institutions. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Wanda Bertram, communications strategist with the Prison Policy Initiative. Here, she cites some of the barriers that almost 600,000 incarcerated, but not convicted, citizens face in trying to vote and the upside for democracy when they can cast their ballots.

WANDA BERTRAM: If you’re not registered, the act of registering takes — as anyone who’s registered to vote before knows — a lot of paperwork that’s often not available in jails, requires identification that many people in jail have had taken from them upon admission. If people are already registered to vote, then there’s the problem of obtaining an absentee ballot. There’s a lot of states where, if you vote absentee, you need an excuse and being in jail is not an approved excuse.

And so when people have asked us, you know, what’s the solution? What we tend to say is “Just go and establish a jail polling place. Set up a polling station such that people can be registered and actually go and vote on Election Day, all at a single place that’s administered by either a nonprofit or by officials who are working at the jail or officials who are working from the city or the county or what have you.”

And there are seven jurisdictions that have actually set up jail polling places to varying degrees of success. The Cook County jail is notorious for all sorts of difficulties and human rights abuses. But one thing that it has done that is, you know, uniquely progressive actually compared to other jails, is that it established a jail-based polling location in 2020 and took advantage of same-day registration. So it allowed for same-day registration, and made two weekends of early in-person voting available in 2020. And over 2,000 of the 5,400 people in the jail cast a ballot.

Now, in June 2022, people were also able to vote from this jail-based polling location and roughly 25 percent of the people detained at the jail cast their ballots. This was actually a higher turnout rate than the city of Chicago overall. The overall turnout rate in Chicago was 20 percent in the June 2022 election.

MELINDA TUHUS: That’s good news. So, Wanda Bertram, this is happening in the context of terrible voter suppression through gerrymandering and new restrictive laws on the outside. And this jail voting seems like moving in the opposite and positive direction in terms of increasing the franchise. I know that voter turnout in communities where many incarcerated folks come from is usually low, in part because they don’t see either major party really representing them.

WANDA BERTRAM: I have tried to help work on voter turnout efforts in places where there are high incarceration rates and there’s poverty issues. And this is totally separate from my work at the Prison Policy Initiative. In doing that, you see how many people are disenchanted with the electoral process and anything that can be done to help people have their voices heard is, in my opinion, really productive work.

I think one of the most important things to recognize about people’s interaction with the criminal justice system is that it can often make people less inclined to vote. Seeing how the punishment system works or even seeing a loved one be punished by arrest and incarceration has been shown in academic research to make people less likely to vote.

So why is it that the Cook County jail is seeing higher turnout rates than the city of Chicago overall? I would say it’s for two reasons. The first is that this is a relatively small and well-run, well-organized jail polling place, right? You have all of your core functions: registration, early voting. All of that stuff. It all happens in the same location and it’s relatively easy for folks to access because it is set up for a very particular population of people. And that’s not true about a lot of polling places out in the “free world,” right? The other thing is that frankly, I think when people are locked up, they don’t have a lot to do and they’re probably more likely to take advantage of opportunities like this that are available to them.

MELINDA TUHUS: Did any outside group, like the League of Women Voters or the NAACP come in to do voter education?

WANDA BERTRAM: I’m actually not sure about that. These jail polling locations in all of these seven jurisdictions that have set them up that we know of, they could not have happened without the involvement of advocacy groups, likely League of Women Voters or the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). Those are the kinds of groups that were involved in pushing for these places. Did they come in addition to helping set up the polling locations, also provide voter education? That I’m not really sure about.

MELINDA TUHUS: You know, people who study this say that when incarcerated people can vote, it helps keep them connected to their communities and to life on the outside, which helps reduce recidivism when they get out. Are there any other positives you see?

WANDA BERTRAM: People in prison and jail have all kinds of political beliefs, so encouraging them to vote encourages all kinds of opinions to be aired. But I think that people who are incarcerated have, very, very valuable perspectives. For instance, if you were to put on the ballot an initiative related to expanding government-sponsored healthcare or affordable housing or changing how the public schools are run or changing obviously mandatory minimums, right? People who are in prison and jail come from the populations that are most likely to be affected by that. So I think that we should absolutely be working to encourage those people to vote.

For more information, visit the Prison Policy Initiative at prisonpolicy.org.

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