Report identifies 3 problems in extending voting rights to inmates
Advocates say problems exists because of mistakes over eligibility and difficulties that detainees and prisoners face in registering or voting
By Gary Fields and Michael Tarm
CHICAGO — The voting precinct could have been any one of hundreds throughout Chicago, except that these voters in the first round of the mayoral election were all wearing the same beige smocks. And the security at this polling place wasn’t intended to keep disrupters and campaigners out, but the voters in.
When first-time voter Tykarri Skillon finished studying the list of nine candidates, looking for those who shared his priorities on jobs and affordable housing, he marked his ballot and then was escorted with other voters back to their cells in the Cook County Jail.
The 25-year-old, awaiting trial on a weapons charge, is part of a group not always mentioned in discussions about voting disenfranchisement. People serving sentences for felony convictions lose their right to vote. Detainees awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences do retain that right, but face barriers to exercising it in many parts of the United States.
The Cook County Jail, with more than 5,500 inmates and detainees, is one of the largest such facilities in the nation. It is one of several lockups where voting rights advocates have worked with local election and jail officials to offer voting for those held there. The list includes jails in Denver; Harris County, Texas; Los Angeles County; and the District of Columbia.
Expanding jailhouse voting is one of the latest steps to combine voting rights with criminal justice changes.
“It feels good to have a voice,” Skillon said after casting his ballot during early voting, before the race went to an April 4 runoff. “We’re going home someday, so we should have a voice in our community.”
Candidates he chose from included the current mayor, Democrat Lori Lightfoot. Among the issues that damaged her politically was rising crime. She eventually came in third in the election, bumping her from an April 4 runoff between the two top vote-getters, also Democrats.
The most recent survey from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, released last December, showed that 451,400 of the 636,300 people held in jails across the country had not been convicted and thus should retain their right to vote.
Voting rights for pretrial detainees and inmates serving sentences for misdemeanors were upheld in a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1974, in a case from New York, O'Brien v. Skinner.
Despite that ruling, voting rights advocates say a “de facto disenfranchisement” exists because of mistakes over eligibility and the difficulties that detainees and prisoners face in registering or voting.
In a 2020 report, the Prison Policy Initiative focused on three main reasons: registration is difficult due to issues such as mail-in ballot deadlines and voter ID laws; detention does not meet the criteria for absentee voting in some jurisdictions; and the churn of the jail populations.
At least one state, Tennessee, had a bill introduced this year to address one of the barriers. Being in jail as a pretrial detainee is not one of the reasons considered valid for granting a mail ballot request, said Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, the bill's sponsor. Yabro, who recently announced he was running for mayor of Nashville, wants that changed.
“Being a full citizen should be the default," he said. "Everybody ought to have the expectation of fully participating in a democracy."
In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, about 75% of the nearly 10,000 people held in jail are pretrial. The sheriff's department established a polling place there in 2019, working with the county elections office, and has allowed voting during the past two election cycles. Before that, detainees voted only by mail.
The move started in 2017 with the Houston Justice Coalition and an initiative known as Project Orange that has helped register thousands of detainees and taught them how to navigate the mail ballot process, Nadia Hakim, a spokeswoman for the Harris County Elections Administration, said in an email.
“Previously if detainees wanted to vote, they had to do the legwork,” she said. “They had to know their registration status and make the request for the mail ballot application.”
In-person voting has multiple advantages. The mail ballot application deadline is April 25 for this year's May 6 election. Someone booked after the deadline would not be able to request a mail ballot, Hakim said. With the in-jail polling place, all detainees can vote, as well as members of the staff and public because machines are available in secure and public spaces. In last November's election, 528 people checked in to vote there, including detainees, employees and members of the public, she said.
In California, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Capt. Roel Garcia said staff members let pretrial detainees know they can register and vote and hold voter registration drives. Garcia, who oversees the inmate reception center, said the department works with groups such as the League of Women Voters to get information to the detainees about candidates and issues on the ballot.
The department and the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk have teamed up on a pilot program since 2020 that allows voting in two jails. There are plans to expand it to all eight county jails in 2024.
Registrar Dean Logan said as many as 11,700 people could be eligible at a given time when the voting goes countywide. He said it could serve as a model for other counties.
“I think the in-person vote centers is something where people are watching to see how that’s going to work and whether or not they have the infrastructure, the equipment and the capacity to offer that,” Logan said.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said in an interview that giving detainees a sense of empowerment and finding ways to get them to rethink their place in the world and to inspire them to change are constant challenges. He said engaging them as elections approach presents an opportunity to accomplish that.
“If you are trying to get inside someone’s head … what better way to do that than to say we want you to be a real decision-maker?" he said. “I’m not saying it is magic fairy dust. … But all (these) things start moving the dial.”
A 2019 state law required that jails take steps to enable voting by detainees who have not been convicted. Smaller jails aren't required to have polling stations but must arrange for absentee ballots.
Dart said the jail helps organize classes overseen by university staff and other organizations to instruct inmates and detainees, before they vote, on everything from the electoral process to the rationale behind judicial elections. Detainees also are able to tune into televised debates between candidates.
“Their election IQ is off the charts,” Dart said. “Participation level, turnout — is higher than it is outside.”
The sheriff's office said about 1,500 inmates and detainees — or roughly 27% of the jail's population — voted during the first round of the Chicago mayoral election.
The Chicago Board of Elections brought in several voting booths this year along with a large ballot-collection machine and put them in a section of the jail called “the chapel,” which is normally used for religious services and small concerts.
With just a few guards looking on, half a dozen board of elections staff managed the jail polling stations, first helping with registration.
Among the voters was 20-year-old Tony Simmons, who marked his ballot while a dozen others sat in an adjoining room, waiting their turn. For safety reasons, just four were brought into the polling station at a time.
Simmons, who is awaiting trial on burglary, robbery and other charges in Cook County, said he had seen campaign ads on jail televisions featuring tough-on-crime messages. It didn’t bother him, he said, adding that crimes rates should come down.
Asked what kinds of candidates he voted for, he answered: “Ones who were more lenient” on issues surrounding the law and crime.
First-time voter Skillon, the one awaiting trial on a weapons charge, said he believed what many jaded voters outside the walls don't.
“Your vote matters," he said. "One vote can most definitely make a difference.”