Advocates work to ensure Mich. jail inmates can cast a ballot
Leaders with the Voting Access for All Coalition hope to reach 5,000 jailed voters across the state
By Angie Jackson
Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — Thousands of people awaiting trial in Michigan's jails have the right to vote, but for a long list of reasons never get their hands on ballots.
A coalition of activist groups is making a concerted effort to remedy that.
Organizations across the state are working with jail officials, clerk's offices and public defenders in roughly a dozen counties to give people the information they need to vote absentee from jail in the Nov. 3 general election. Leaders with the Voting Access for All Coalition hope to reach 5,000 jailed voters across the state.
"There’s all these barriers that we’re trying to either circumvent or tear down and make it possible," said Troy Rienstra, director of Nation Outside, an organization made up of formerly incarcerated people that's part of the voting coalition.
Officials in Wayne County have started to facilitate the absentee voting process for people in jail. Coalition co-coordinator Carrie Hatcher-Kay said advocates haven't been able to solidify plans with sheriffs or clerk's offices in Oakland or Macomb counties.
In Macomb County, the jail doesn't have a program that informs people of their right to vote. Sgt. Renee Yax of the Macomb County Sheriff's Office said people who are incarcerated might learn of their right to request an absentee ballot from outside sources such as television, mail, visits and phone calls.
On any given day, there are three quarters of a million people housed in U.S. jails, and most are eligible to vote, according to the criminal justice think tank Prison Policy Initiative. Michigan, like many states across the country, doesn't have a centralized system to ensure that all citizens of voting age awaiting sentencing behind bars have the opportunity to cast a ballot. Individuals in jail might not know they have the right to vote. And if they do know that they're eligible, registering and requesting an absentee ballot from jail can be challenging.
"There are a lot of activists working hard to facilitate that process, but we need to reform this system because there should be a no-brainer path to facilitate exercising your right to vote," Hatcher-Kay said.
Advocates are trying to simplify the process for jail officials by sharing voting materials and instructions as well as posters and information for tablets and TV screens seen by inmates. Representatives from the Michigan Department of State are supportive of the coalition's efforts to reach incarcerated voters.
People lose their right to vote in Michigan only while they are serving a sentence in jail or prison. Their right to vote is automatically restored once their confinement ends.
Sheriffs operate county jails. A few sheriff's offices and clerks, including those in Ingham and Washtenaw counties, have established partnerships to facilitate absentee voting. Others have been open to the coalition's outreach this election cycle. Still, Rienstra said some officials have resisted advocates' efforts or haven't responded.
Jail officials that partner with clerk's offices say the process is straightforward. Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office staff run a weekly roster of individuals who are eligible to vote. Clerks in years past visited the jail to register people and talk about the absentee ballot process. Clerks won't be allowed into the facility this year because of COVID-19, so jail staff are picking up that responsibility, said Renee Casey, Washtenaw County's director of community corrections and correctional services.
"It’s the right thing to do and it is not a challenge that’s insurmountable," she said. "This is a process that, if you have a partnership with your clerk's office, can be easily streamlined, and it doesn’t create a lot of extra burden for the corrections staff."
Challenges across the country
When it comes to removing obstacles to voting while incarcerated, advocates point to the Cook County Jail in Chicago as a leader for establishing a temporary polling precinct. The Chicago Tribune reported that more than a third of the 5,300 people incarcerated at the jail voted in the March primary — the first time the jail operated as a polling place — which was a boost from previous participation through absentee voting.
The Illinois state legislature in 2019 passed a bill that requires counties with 3 million or more residents to establish a temporary polling place in the jail.
Chicago is an outlier. A report released last week found that while most people in county jails across the country are eligible to vote, barriers plague the process of registering and casting a ballot.
“The amount of jail voting that’s happening is very small," said Ginger Jackson-Gleich, policy counsel at the Prison Policy Initiative who co-authored the report released in collaboration with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a civil rights advocacy organization formed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Among the hurdles is a lack of access to forms in jail, the report said. Without the internet, submitting the required documents can be impossible if someone in jail can't get a paper registration form.
In at least two states, Colorado and Arizona, election rules require county clerks to coordinate with their sheriff's office to facilitate voting for people in jail.
Partnerships in Michigan
Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said it's her duty as an election official to ensure that qualified residents are afforded the chance to vote, and "sometimes that requires me to go to communities that are underserved."
Byrum, for the last several years, has led voter registration drives at the Ingham County Jail, visiting the dorms to speak with individuals. This year, she and her staff will interact with eligible voters though food slots on the doors as a precaution against COVID-19.
Corrections Maj. Darin Southworth of the Ingham County Sheriff's Office said jail staff treat outgoing absentee ballots like legal mail, giving it a quick glance to check for contraband in the voter's presence.
He said the partnership with the clerk's office "protects the integrity and objectivity of voter rights" and isn't a burden on staff.
"It literally invites every opportunity where there’s no excuses, no argument for us being in the way or failing to make the opportunity for one to vote," Southworth said.
The Wayne County Sheriff's Office is working with the NAACP to bring clerks into the county's three jails, said Pageant Atterberry, a sheriff's spokeswoman. She said the clerk's office in Detroit has started to register voters and accept absentee ballot requests for city residents in jail.
Darryl Woods helped register people to vote last week at the county's jail in Hamtramck. Woods, who is formerly incarcerated and sits on the Michigan Appellate Defender Commission, said many people didn't realize they could cast a ballot from jail. About 150 people registered during that visit.
"They felt as if they belonged to the community ... which they do. You could see them with a lot of pride in terms of being able to be a part of this election," he said.
In west Michigan, social workers with the Muskegon County Public Defenders Office are sending their 115 clients a packet that explains their rights, the candidates on their ballot and instructions on how to fill out an absentee ballot application.
Alyssa Gunderson, lead social worker, said people in jail have been surprised to learn they can vote because no one had told them about their right. She and the social work interns spearheading the project said they hope the voting packets will help their clients trust the process.
"Our rights are our rights, and we want to make sure our clients have the opportunity to exercise those," Gunderson said.
How to vote from jail
Here are some things to know if you or a loved one is in jail in Michigan and wants to vote in the November election.
Q: Can I vote if I have entered a plea or have been convicted at trial and am in jail awaiting sentencing?
A: Yes. Eligibility to vote is affected at the time of sentencing.
Q: How can I register to vote and get an absentee ballot from jail?
A: State election officials recommend that people who are incarcerated ask jail staff or a family member to print and provide them with a voter registration form and absentee ballot application. You'll mail these forms to your city or township clerk.
Q: Can someone help me turn in my absentee ballot?
A: You can mail it yourself, or a close friend or family member, a mail carrier or an election official can deliver your signed absentee ballot to your clerk's office, according to the state.
Q: When are the deadlines?
A: To vote in the Nov. 3 election, voter registration applications returned by mail must be postmarked by Oct. 19. If you're released from jail, you can register in person at your clerk's office any time up to 8 p.m. on Election Day.
The deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail is 5 p.m. on Oct. 30, but the state recommends submitting your application as soon as possible to avoid potential mail delays. Your completed ballot must be returned to your clerk by 8 p.m. on Election Day. The state recommends that voters mail their absentee ballots no later than Oct. 19.
For more information: The Voting Access for All Coalition runs a nonpartisan voting helpline. Call 855-868-3311 or email email@example.com with your questions. Someone will respond within 24 hours.
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