Voting Eligibility and The American Carceral State

The ability to vote is an integral part of the United States Constitution. However under specific circumstances, an individual can lose the right to vote. Disenfranchisment is a common occurrence in state and federal prisons. However, individuals incarcerated at local jails often find themselves in a gray area. This report from the Prison Policy Initiative discusses how jails typically have a number of inmates who are able to vote, but can’t due to misinformation and other barriers.

Inability To Vote Linked To Poor Information, Miscommunication

According to the report, nearly 750,000 people are confined in local jails across the United States. Despite their imprisonment, most of these people are still eligible to vote. This is directly related to the fact that many people are not officially convicted of a crime. There is also the possibility that the person may have only been convicted of a minor crime, or misdemeanor. Whether a person is on parole also plays a role in determining disenfranchisement. 

Despite this, most inmates do not vote. This is because they are facing numerous physical and social barriers that actively prevent them from voting. One of the biggest barriers that currently exist is the lack of real information available to the inmates. Most people do not receive accurate voting information while imprisoned. This leads to mass confusion, which then creates additional hardships in determining voting eligibility. Without this, the inmates have no idea if they’re qualified or not.

Other Issues Preventing Voting

Even if an inmate knows that they are eligible to vote, they may struggle to register to vote. Many states require that a person register in advance to ensure access to voting materials. Although these forms are accessible both online and on paper, inmates do not have reliable internet access or mailing systems to ensure timely delivery. Furthermore, most inmates do not have access to proper photo IDs or other important personal information required to affirm citizenship and voter eligibility. Finally, inmates do not necessarily have access to the registration safeguards that a civilian would. With limited internet and phone access, checking their registration status becomes more of a chore than a convenience.

Registration challenges are only the first hurdle for inmates to leap. Be it early deadlines, identification requirements, or the lack of appropriate forms, inmates struggle to make their voices heard during an election. Additionally, fears of compromised ballots, restrictive absentee ballot requirements and limited access to voting guides prevent many from participating.

Additionally, jails typically do not hold people for long periods of time. While this may appear unproblematic, it does affect voter participation. For example, a person who was incarcerated during the registration period will (in most cases) be unable to vote. Alternatively, they may have registered beforehand, but happened to be incarcerated during the voting period. In either case, the person cannot participate in the electoral process.

Going Forward

In order to address these issues, advocates, lawmakers, and election officials must work together. Without the cooperation of all three of these groups, there is no chance that we will ever see true reform. The right to vote belongs to every American citizen, regardless of their carceral status. The article gives a list of key reformation strategies that these groups can implement to assist in enfranchisement efforts.

Advocates are responsible for starting most reformation movements. As such, they have the potential to push lawmakers and electoral officials into making lasting changes. However, advocates can assist further by providing direct support to inmates. This support could include things like education, registration and voting assistance, and outreach to elected officials.

The article also encourages lawmakers to take action as well. It is their responsibility to ensure that jails coordinate their efforts with election officials to ensure eligible individuals can vote. They also have the ability to change laws so that more individuals can register to vote on Election Day. Furthermore, lawmakers can make adjustments to the law for things like absentee ballots or required identification materials. The article also suggests that homeless peoples can utilize the jails’ and/or shelters’ address as their registration address.

Election officials must also take part in the reformation efforts. Their responsibilities include ensuring that all state and local staff understand the laws of the state to combat misinformation. This includes information on inmate voting and who actually qualifies to vote. In the event that a government agency produces a voter guide, officials must ensure a timely delivery to inmates.

By implementing these strategies, it is possible to see real change in the justice system. For more like this, check out this article.

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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