CHICAGO — Hundreds of thousands of people in jails across the country are legally eligible to vote but can’t. Some call it "de facto disenfranchisement," but some advocacy groups try to remove ballot box barriers inside jails.
Several times a month, organizers like Alexandria Boutros pass through heavy security at the Cook County Jail. She and a handful of volunteers with the advocacy group Chicago Votes are on a mission to register people in pre-trial detention to vote.
“We usually get the questions of who's on the ballot and when's the election and where do I vote?” said Alexandria Boutros, a community organizing manager with Chicago Votes Community.
Boutros says a lot of incarcerated people don’t realize that it’s legal in all 50 states for them to cast a ballot while in custody.
“That is partially out of confusion because felony disenfranchisement laws are different across the nation,” said Boutros.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, while most states do not disenfranchise people serving time on misdemeanor convictions, about a half dozen do, including Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina.
“In the overwhelming majority of states, until you are actually convicted of a felony, in most cases, you're still eligible to vote,” said Durrel Douglas, a national jail-based voting initiative organizer for the Sentencing Project.
They estimate that of the 746,000 individuals in jail on any given day, 75% are eligible to vote but can’t.
“There’s not an actual mechanism for people to vote at these facilities. So, there's a sort of de facto disenfranchisement that happens,” said Douglas.
Rudy Garrett, co-executive director of Chicago Votes, said beyond voter registration drives, the organization advocated for and helped pass a state bill to expand polling locations inside jails.
“That actually made Cook County Jail a polling place and then requires all jails across the entire state of Illinois to engage in an absentee ballot chase program to make sure folks who are serving time in pretrial detention have access to the ballot,” she said.
Illinois is one of only a few states that have passed legislation establishing polling locations inside jails. Los Angeles County, Denver County, Colo., Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Harris County, Texas, have also created mechanisms to vote from jail.
“We were actually able to bring a polling location to the jail in Harris County, which is Houston, Texas, the largest city and the largest county in Texas,” said Douglas. “And there's this ripple that is now happening in places like Omaha, Nebraska.”
Advocates like Garrett said it’s not enough to be eligible to vote; municipalities and jails must take an active role in making the ballot box more accessible.
“Folks who have served time in a carceral system actually have a wide breadth of knowledge that we really valuable to our democracy,” she said. “So, they should have that right to vote.”