What Government Can Do to Ensure Pretrial Detainees Can Vote

FILE - In this Feb., ... ]

FILE - In this Feb., ... ] Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Election education and access to polls or polling materials are key, says the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress.

State and local governments can work with correctional administrators to set up polling stations at jails or help inmates get absentee ballots to ensure pretrial detainees are able to vote while incarcerated, according to a new Center for American Progress issue brief.

About 536,000 people at any moment are incarcerated awaiting trial in the U.S., many of them low-income and minorities, says the progressive advocacy group.

Detainees awaiting trial may vote so long as they’re citizens, of age and—depending on the jurisdiction—lack a prior felony conviction.

“There is a long history of people who are incarcerated being prevented from voting in jails around the country,” said Danielle Root, voting rights manager at CAP, in a statement. “Because the jail population in the United States is disproportionally comprised of people of color, this practice amounts to one more way in which people of color are being systematically denied their constitutional right to vote.”

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, took up the issue of felon disenfranchisement before leaving office, pardoning 156,221 people after they’d completed their sentences—about 23,000 of which participated in the 2016 election. Similarly, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, restored voting rights to about 35,000 parolees via executive order.

But such interventions by state leaders don’t help pretrial detainees, especially those with disabilities accounting for about 40 percent of the U.S. jail population, per the brief.

State and local governments should invest in election education at detention facilities concerning voter registration and absentee ballot return dates, CAP says. Advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Chicago Votes have assisted with such efforts in places like Los Angeles County, California and Cook County Jail, respectively.

A California State Assembly bill would require jail administrators to allow such groups to do their work, while Washington, D.C. provides every inmate with a voter registration card when they enter jail.

CAP said jails can help pretrial detainees get access to voting materials like registration forms and absentee ballots, or else set up an on-site polling place or provide transportation to one. In New York City, the Department of Correction, Campaign Finance Board and Legal Aid Society will work together this fall to collect voter registration paperwork and absentee ballots from city jails and deliver them to the Boards of Elections.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, recently vetoed a bill that would have turned Cook County Jail into a temporary polling place on Election Day.

“Every citizen eligible to vote should be able to exercise that right, and I fully support this expansion of access to the democratic process,” Rauner said in a statement. “However, this legislation also mandates that the Department of Corrections, as well as county jails across the state, take part in voter registration and education efforts that exceed the legitimate role of law enforcement, corrections and probation personnel.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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