Put simply, of the approximately 746,000 individuals in jail on any given day, most have the right to vote.

This is the case for several reasons:

  • Most people in jail have not been convicted of the charges on which they are being held (i.e. they are being detained “pretrial”), and pretrial detention does not disqualify someone from voting.
  • People in jail who are serving post-conviction sentences have typically been convicted of only minor offenses called misdemeanors, and very few states disenfranchise people serving time for misdemeanor convictions.
  • Although some people in jail may be disenfranchised for reasons independent of their current detention (e.g. a prior felony conviction or being on probation/parole in a different case), not all states disenfranchise people on probation or parole (see table below), and the number of people who are in jail while also on probation or parole is relatively small.

Most people in jail are legally eligible to vote, but they are prevented from doing so by numerous barriers.

The specific work that needs to be done to enable eligible voters to cast their ballots from jail depends on the state in which they are located and the laws of that state. But in all states, there are opportunities for a wide range of actors to contribute to enfranchisement efforts.

Strategies for advocates

  • Do outreach to local election officials and sheriffs about the voting rights of people in jail, as discussed in this helpful advocacy guide from the Campaign Legal Center.
  • Review election resources (e.g. websites and official brochures) to ensure that clear, accurate, and comprehensive information about all forms of criminal disenfranchisement laws is included; see this ACLU report for a summary of common registration-form problems and potential solutions.
  • Conduct voter registration drives in jails, and empower jailed people to vote in jail-based polling stations (as in Chicago), or to access absentee ballots where in-person voting is not available (as this doctor is doing in South Carolina and this California Public Defender’s Office is doing in English and Spanish).
  • Because some states permit pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and because some juvenile facilities may hold people 18 and older, advocates may want to include juvenile facilities in their efforts.
  • Provide training for any election workers or volunteers that will visit the jail to ensure compliance with jail rules and cultural competency in interacting with incarcerated people.
  • Monitor/provide outside support (e.g. hotlines) for jail-voting processes, as community groups have done in several states (see the instructive examples discussed by the Sentencing Project’s report “Voting in Jails” for more detail).
  • Identify, publicize, and change laws, policies and practices that impede jail voting, as advocates have done in places like Arizona, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts.
    Utilize public records requests to collect information about existing jail-voting policies and procedures, as well as about the number of ballots being requested and cast by people voting from jail.

Read the full article about removing barriers to jail voting by Ginger Jackson-Gleich and Rev. Dr. S. Todd Yeary at Prison Policy Initiative.