Why These Activists Want to Turn Jails Into Polling Places

Most people in American jails are eligible to vote, but don't actually have access to that legal right

There are approximately 549,000 people in United States jails on a given day.

A vast majority of jailed Americans are either awaiting a trial or serving time for a misdemeanor, which makes them eligible to vote. It is legal in every state for a jailed resident without a felony conviction to cast a ballot.

But, in many jails, detained individuals don’t even have access to that legal right.

Durrel Douglas, a jail-based voting initiative organizer with The Sentencing Project, recently published a report titled “Voting in Jails: Advocacy Strategies to #UnlocktheVote” where he detailed the considerable obstacles jailed individuals face in trying to vote, which range from misinformation to institutional bureaucracy and deprioritization among government officials.

More specifically, the report says voting programs in jails that rely on absentee ballots “often experience various challenges, including low incarcerated voter engagement” and that jail administrators “often lack knowledge about voting laws, do not prioritize incarcerated voter access programs, and do not address bureaucratic obstacles to establishing a voting process within institutions.”

“What surprised me the most is the fact that in counties all across the United States where it's actually legal for [jailed] people to vote, there's not a mechanism for them to do so,” Douglas said in an interview with LX News. “So imagine where you are, if there was nowhere for you to go and get a voter registration card, there was no way for you to actually vote either with a poll or with your absentee ballot.”

This lack of access to a vote in jails disproportionately affects people of color. Black and Latinx people make up 52% of America’s jailed population, according to the report.

“Black and Brown people are disproportionately affected when it comes to voting in general,” Douglas said. “We know that whether it was slavery, Jim Crow or these modern bills that are being passed to limit the vote in what we call, quote-unquote, the free world, it's even heavier the disproportion when it comes to Black and Brown people when they're in jail. I would call it the new Jim Crow. I think someone beat me to that already, though.”

But, in his report, Douglas laid out strategies to improve voting access in jails. One of them: turning jails into polling places, an idea that’s actually been carried out in some places across the country.

In 2019, Illinois lawmakers passed a bill that required counties with a population greater than three million to set up in-person voting and same-day registration at their jails. Cook County was the state’s lone county with a population above three million. The Cook County jail in Chicago, which detains about 6,100 individuals on a given day, had roughly 2,200 people cast a ballot on-site for the 2020 presidential election as a result of the bill.

Last year, Illinois lawmakers passed another bill that allowed each county sheriff to set up polling places in their local jails. Prior to that bill going into effect, people in those jails could only vote via absentee ballot.

The practice was also implemented in Houston’s Harris County jail. The jail, which detains about 9,000 individuals on a given day, has set up polling sites for multiple elections, most recently during the 2022 spring primary.

“If you make your jail a polling place, it's often very efficient for the county and you make sure that you're not skipping out on some 549,000 people across the nation that are missing their opportunity to vote,” Douglas said. “There's a lot of attention around access to the ballot. This, however, is one of those areas that doesn't get a whole lot of attention.”

Another strategy Douglas proposed was for jails to host candidate forums as a way to improve voter education, promote civic participation and facilitate direct contact between jailed individuals and political candidates.

In 2018, Boston’s Suffolk County House of Corrections hosted a forum with six district attorney candidates. Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins wanted the candidates to hear from those who are directly impacted by the district attorney position. During the forum, inmates asked candidates questions about issues like police accountability, drug treatment and re-entry programs.

“Everyone knows about the November election. Very few people know about the primary,” Douglas said. “Even when we talk about the primary or the general election, most people know who they want to vote for, for president, governor, senator, member of Congress. But when it comes down ballot, many people, including myself, don't really know who those people are and have to do a little bit of extra research.

“So those who are in jail are hit with that even more so because they can't hop on Google or another search engine and find out more about these candidates. It'd be great to have, even if via video, an opportunity to have these candidate forums accessible by the jail or in the jail. Especially when we think about elections for sheriff, district attorney and other races like that.”