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US Many people in jail are eligible to vote. But casting a ballot behind bars isn't easy

11:50  30 october  2020
11:50  30 october  2020 Source:   usatoday.com

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Most of the 750,000 People in U.S. Jails Are Eligible to Vote . These Advocates Are Fighting to Get Them Registered. These Advocates Are Fighting to Get Them Registered. A Cook County jail inmate casts his ballot as he participates in early voting for the Illinois primary in Chicago on March 14, 2020.

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NEW YORK — When Chris Greene learned he was eligible to vote while detained at Rikers Island, he knew immediately that he wanted to do so.

Greene, who's awaiting trial on burglary charges, is one of the more than 600 voters in New York City's Department of Correction custody who registered to vote this year.

He mentioned the late Rep. John Lewis a couple times when he thought about why voting matters to him.

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"In one way I felt a little small, and then other ways, I felt that I count too and every little bit helps," he said, describing what he felt while filling out his ballot.

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He chuckled when he was asked who he voted for: "For me, it's Biden."

There are too many disparities in the criminal justice system, he said, that lead to inequalities for someone like him, a Black man at age 59 who has recovered from addiction. And one way to fix that, he said, is voting.

Greene is one of some hundreds of thousands of people in local jails around the country, the majority of whom retain their voting eligibility as they await trial or serve misdemeanor sentences.

But legal experts and voting rights advocates say that many eligible voters in U.S. jails are disenfranchised by structural barriers that prevent their access to voting information, registration materials and absentee ballot applications.

And given that people in jails are disproportionately Black or people of color, the disenfranchisement marginalizes a demographic that already faces greater barriers to voter access than most white Americans, says Andrea Hailey, CEO of Vote.org.

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There are other reasons why people sometimes leave ballots partially blank. The 2016 presidential election featured two of the least popular leading candidates the United States has ever seen. Many voters left the presidential ballot blank as a “protest vote ," a practice sometimes called undervoting.

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"The disenfranchisement that happens in jails disproportionately affects people of lower socioeconomic status and disproportionately affects people of color," Hailey said.

"What happens when someone throws out voter guides or doesn't help the voting population vote, what you're really saying there is that your voice doesn't matter. And it absolutely does matter."

Robert Igoe, a counselor and coordinator with New York City's Correctional Health Services, said many voters at Rikers were © Photo courtesy of NYC Department of Correction Robert Igoe, a counselor and coordinator with New York City's Correctional Health Services, said many voters at Rikers were "surprised" when they learned they were still eligible to vote.

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'Complicated legal patchwork'

In a normal year, there are some 700,000 people in city and county jails across the country, but COVID-19 has led to major reductions in jail populations around the U.S. In March and April, the number of people in local jails dropped by about a quarter, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.

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out of ,823 after pretending to have ovarian cancer gives birth to a baby boy behind bars She was sentenced to two years in jail and is eligible for parole next February She gave birth to a baby boy two weeks ago and is appealing her sentence community after pretending to suffer from ovarian cancer has given birth while behind bars .

Most British people are familiar with what goes on inside a polling station. You march in, possibly Dogs may not yet be entitled to vote but they are allowed to come and watch as long as they don' t disrupt People do occasionally sign their ballots . If the name is identifiable your vote will not count.

About two-thirds of people in jails are awaiting trial – with a presumption of innocence – and are unable to post bail, while others in jails are serving misdemeanor sentences that do not disenfranchise them by law, according to a May 2020 report from the criminal justice nonprofit the Sentencing Project.

A Supreme Court ruling in 1974 affirmed the rights of eligible voters in jail to have access to voting. But the reality is that many people in jail don't know if they're eligible to vote, don't receive access to registration materials and absentee ballots, and aren't supported by many jail staffs to vote, advocates and experts say.

Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, calls it "de facto disenfranchisement." Most of the jail population is eligible to vote, but jails are "discretionary" in what level of access they give, she said.

The number of people disenfranchised by lack of access in jails is smaller than those disenfranchised by a felony conviction, but both groups must navigate confusing laws that vary by jurisdiction, advocates say.

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For felony disenfranchisement, it's a "complicated legal patchwork" with different rules in each state determining who can vote and when after a conviction, said Dana Paikowsky, a legal fellow at the Campaign Legal Center who focuses on access to voting in jails.

Eligible voters in jail and people working to give them access must work through local election infrastructures as well as the policies enacted by the jail, Paikowsky said.

For example, "if you're in Tallahassee, the likelihood that you have access to the ballot may look totally different than in Orlando," she said.

"There should be a floor there. It shouldn't matter what jurisdiction you're arrested in."

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'The only access they would get is when we would come through'

Paikowsky said one of the first hurdles many face is getting information to voters in jail about who actually is eligible to cast a ballot.

"A common barrier is a lack of information, both for jailed voters themselves and for the people who they would rely on to vote," including correctional department staffs, Paikowsky said.

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In some cases, jails facilitate voting and registration and encourage detainees to do so. According to the Sentencing Project, jails in Los Angeles County, Washington, D.C., and Cook County, Illinois, where Chicago is located, facilitate in-person voting in their jails.

a man sitting on a table: New York City Department of Correction Facility Programs Coordinator Nadely Tavarez works with a voter to complete voting forms at Rikers Island. © Photo courtesy of NYC Department of Correction New York City Department of Correction Facility Programs Coordinator Nadely Tavarez works with a voter to complete voting forms at Rikers Island.

But that's not the norm for most voters in jail, advocates say. Many submit applications for registration and absentee ballot requests via mail when outside civic groups come into jails to register eligible voters.

"Are they going to pull out their MacBook Pro and pull up Chrome? No. The only access they would get is when we would come through," said Durrel Douglas, a former correctional officer in Texas who now registers eligible voters inside Harris County jail through his nonprofit Houston Justice Coalition.

Spotty mail services plague jails with delays, and the deadlines to get registration and absentee ballot forms sent off are concrete, Douglas said.

He recounted when he first registered voters in jail in 2017. Absentee ballot request forms and voter registration materials were sent out at the same time, but the ballot request forms were received first. With the registration forms not yet processed, some of the absentee requests were denied.

Some states also require witness signatures or even for ballots to be notarized. In Oklahoma, for example, exceptions were made this year to its requirement that ballots be notarized due to COVID-19, but a copy of a photo ID was required to be sent in with the ballot if it wasn't notarized.

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Other issues can occur when someone in jail doesn't have a permanent address. Paikowsky said they should be allowed to list the jail as their address, but she and others have run into barriers there, too. In Ohio, some voters in a county jail who listed the jail as their address had their registration's rejected earlier this month.

The county corrected the issue, Paikowsky said, but it was "notably a situation where there were attorneys and advocates involved, which certainly isn’t always the case."

What happens when someone is registered but arrested after the deadline passes to request an absentee ballot? While some states have mechanisms in place that allow voters jailed after the deadline to get a ballot, many don't, Paikowsky added.

"This is in general a pretty huge blind spot that most states' election infrastructures have," she said.

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'They felt empowered'

Underpinning all these challenges in 2020 is the coronavirus pandemic: "COVID has exacerbated all the existing barriers that make voting from jails difficult," Paikowsky said.

At Rikers in New York City, all inmates were sent a package with registration materials and documents informing them who was eligible to vote. In most years, program coordinators and outside civic groups would come into the jail to explain eligibility and help them fill out the registration forms, said Steven Kaiser, executive director of policy and intergovernmental affairs at New York City's Department of Correction.

However, with COVID-19 precautions, the jail limited the number of outside volunteers who could enter. During the height of New York City's outbreak, hundreds of detainees and even more Department of Correction staff tested positive.

Justin Butler, a program manager for the geriatrics and complex care division of the city's Correctional Health Services, said he remember patients during that time saying they felt increased isolation and wanted more information about what was happening in the outside world.

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Then, when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis in May, even more people detained at Rikers said they felt a disconnect with their outside community, said Dr. Rachael Bedard, the director of geriatrics and complex care services at Correctional Health Services.

Knowing that the typical voter registration drivers could be limited without outside groups' help, correctional health staff began an effort to discuss voting with their patients during clinical visits.

"So if a patient came down for an asthma check up, (staff) could also say, 'Do you want to register to vote?'" Bedard explained.

In all, Department of Correction and Correctional Health Services staff helped submit 666 registration forms and 642 absentee ballot request forms from voters in their custody, nearly double the share of forms submitted in the 2018 midterms as a percentage of the department's population.

Robert Igoe, a senior transitional care coordinator at Correctional Health Services, met one-on-one with people detained at Rikers and helped them fill out the registration and absentee ballot request forms.

"They were surprised, just the expression on their face," Igoe said of when voters learned they were eligible. Igoe and others also delivered the ballots and picked them up to be given to New York City's Board of Elections without having to go through the postal system.

"All the people who did register, I would say, they felt empowered, at this particular point in history, that they were going to be a part of 2020," Igoe said.

Greene, awaiting trail at Rikers, echoed the sentiment: "These are some really crucial times in the country," he said. "We need to be heard, and we all need to be pushing in the right direction."

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Access to voting guides

Another common issue that Paikowsky has seen in jurisdictions around the U.S. this year is limiting access to voting guides for people in jail.

In Cook County, more than 2,000 voters have already cast their ballots, made possible by an early polling location on site at the jail.

"We insist on our detainees in jails to vote. We try to make it as easy as possible for them to do that," Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said at a press conference earlier this month on the first day of early voting in the jail in the general election.

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a man standing in a kitchen: A Cook County jail detainee uses a touch screen to cast his votes at a polling in the facility set up for early voting on October 17, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. It is the first time pretrial detainees in the jail will get the opportunity for early voting in a general election. © Nuccio DiNuzzo, Getty Images A Cook County jail detainee uses a touch screen to cast his votes at a polling in the facility set up for early voting on October 17, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. It is the first time pretrial detainees in the jail will get the opportunity for early voting in a general election.

The Sentencing Project cited the Cook County jail as a model for others to facilitate voting in jails in its report earlier this year. More than 1,800 detainees were able to cast a vote from the polling location during the March primary.

New state legislation that went into effect this year allowed for the creation of the polling the site, making Cook County jail the the first in the nation to serve as a polling location, according to Matt Walberg, a spokesperson for the Sheriff's Office.

Dart said that voters at the jail worked with civic groups like Chicago Votes to get registered. While 40% of the jail population has already voted, Walberg said Thursday, hundreds more requested absentee ballots. In collaboration with local universities and Chicago Votes, voters received civic education, too.

However, a hurdle to access to information came to light this week when 1,000 voter guides on judicial candidates mailed to detainees were rejected in the mailroom and not allowed inside the jail.

Journalists at Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization, published guides on judicial offices up for election in Cook County and sent them to individual people at the jail.

"It's the hardest part of the ballot," said Adeshina Emmanuel, the news organization's co-editor. But, "these are high stake elections, especially for Black and Latinx people," he added, who make up a majority of the jail's population.

Emmanuel said the news organization had been in contact with jail staff for months about the guides and were told that the mailroom would be prepared to receive them.

When Emmanuel and his colleagues got the news that the guides hadn't made their way to voters and were being sent back, "my jaw just dropped," he said. "I just couldn't get over how harmful I think something like this is."

Juliet Sorenson, Injustice Watch's executive director, said she was in contact with officials at the jail and at least some of the voters there who had yet to cast ballots would receive the guides. The news outlet was working to distribute the other guides to other voters in Cook County, she added.

Walberg said the Sheriff's Office takes responsibility for the failture to deliver the guides. The mailing room rejected the guides because they were made of newspaper, but "this decision was against our policy and wrong," Walberg said.

"The result was unacceptable," he added. "We have expressed our sincere apology to Injustice Watch, are currently working to identify how and when the error occurred and will take corrective action where appropriate.

"We did many things right and only one thing wrong."

While Cook County is a leader in jail-based voting, Paikowsky said, similar issues around voting information have arisen in other jurisdictions in Arizona and Ohio.

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Many experts point to establishing polling locations at jails like Cook County as one of the many reforms correctional facilities can take to increase voting access for their populations.

For reforms to boost registration, Paikowsky cited Washington, D.C., where the jail serves as an agency that can register people to vote upon intake, similar to how a DMV may register someone getting a new drivers license.

Increased education for jail staff and correctional officers is also necessary, Paikowsky said. Misinformation about who is eligible to vote and how to access registration materials and ballots often comes from jail staffs themselves, she said.

Porter, of the Sentencing Project, said having case managers bring up voting should be a priority to boost engagement.

For some people in jail, their interaction with the criminal justice system may be their only interaction with their local governments at all. "In that interaction, that resident may come in contact with a case manager who can, on a list of things, tell them to register to vote if they haven't had that opportunity."

Paikowsky said this sort of individualized interaction is one of the most effective ways to get voters registered, rather than relying on only passive measures like posting fliers.

"You have to normalize access and make sure that that is something that is part of what it means to run an efficient jail," said Vote.org's Hailey.

For Greene, he learned he was eligible to vote through the correctional health staff at Rikers Island, and it was the first time he ever cast a ballot.

The past year, especially the early days of the pandemic, has been a time of great uncertainty for those living in the jail, he said. He tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this year and also is worried about how the pandemic delayed court proceedings, saying he's felt "stuck".

Voting, however, gave him a sense of control over his circumstances. He's been in and out of jail for several years, and the last time, his mother died before he was released, he said.

"I'm just trying to better myself," he added. "I want to be a contributor to society."

Follow USA TODAY's Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Many people in jail are eligible to vote. But casting a ballot behind bars isn't easy

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