One of the best kept secrets among incarcerated people who are incarcerated is that they have the right to vote if they are pre-trialed or sentenced for a misdemeanor. Once inmates are classified and found eligible to vote, they should be given the opportunity to register. But as advocates for voting rights report these rights are suppressed by the lack of knowledge.
With primaries in progress and a Presidential election just months away many voting rights advocates believe if the justice system is not challenged many eligible voters will be left out of the process.
“The 700,000 eligible inmates in jails don't have access to voter registration materials or absentee ballots,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project.
To address this problem, the District has set up a system in its jails to accommodate eligible voters but candidates and advocates said it falls short.
“I would have loved to debate other candidates inside the jails. Inmates, like other voters, need to know that certain politicians up for reelection have done nothing to improve the human rights violations that occur in our jails,” said Ron Moten, a candidate for the Ward 7 council seat.
Charlie Sullivan, cofounder of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) agreed. “If more inmates voted, it could turn elections around. Could you imagine an incumbent losing to a candidate with votes that came from the jails? It would be awesome. We would have a much better penal system locally.”
According to Department of Correction officials, if an inmate wishes to register, a case manager provides a voter registration application. Completed registration applications are delivered by the case manager to the designated staff member who places them in an envelope and delivers them to the mailroom. The DOC mail carrier hand delivers the applications to the Board of Elections and Ethics and receives a signed receipt.
“At any given time In DC jails, out of the 2,500 inmates about 90 percent are eligible to vote. In the years that we have been advocating for inmates’ rights to vote, we have never witnessed more than 400 inmates voting for an election cycle,” said Sullivan. “DC’s system is far better than others around the country on inmate voting rights. But there are many things that need to be done so that eligible voters inside jails have all the same opportunities to make informed choices and allowed to vote.
Elliot M., 28, (last name not given purposely) has been in jail five times in the last eight years for several misdemeanors such as trespassing, marijuana use and not reporting for court hearings. He couldn’t recall one instance when he was asked about his voting status, given a form to request absentee ballots or vote while incarcerated.
“I remember how some of us were talking about how we wanted to vote for Obama in his first election. If the jails are coordinating voting for inmates, it definitely needs to do a better job so that everyone gets the information over and over until they thoroughly understand,” said Elliot.
For the upcoming primary, a designated employee from the Board of Elections and Ethics (BOEE) will visit the jail to pick up the voter registration cards as well as the applications for a mail absentee ballot.
On the designated date for the absentee ballot, voting stations will be set up on each floor staffed by DOC security and case management staff, BOEE staff, poll watchers and staff from the Office of Returning Citizens Affairs.
Inmates were individually brought to complete their ballots and place them in a sealed/signed envelope. The ballots which were in the custody of the BOEE were taken back to their office.
Officials also said inmates in court or medical treatment will be given ballots to complete and be picked up by the BOEE.