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Roundup: Defending the Voting Rights of Jail Detainees

Naila Awan
Chiraag Bains

Every election, large numbers of eligible voters are denied their fundamental right to vote because they are behind bars when ballots are cast. Here's what we're doing about it.

Every day, over 750,000 people are incarcerated in jails across the United States—about half a million of them before they have even been tried, many because they cannot pay bail. 

People are not disqualified from voting for being merely accused of a crime. And yet every election, large numbers of eligible voters are denied their fundamental right to vote because they are behind bars when ballots are cast. 

This practice of withholding voting rights to jail detainees is one of our most hidden, racially disparate forms of voter disenfranchisement. Demos is proud to support the growing grassroots movement fighting to end it.

Spotlight: Georgia 

In 2019, Georgia amended state law to permit, for the first time, absentee ballots to be sent to voters incarcerated in state jails.

Demos and the Southern Center for Human Rights are supporting this work by sending mailings to 1,000 jailed Georgia voters. These mailings include a voter registration form, an absentee ballot application, and Know Your Rights information. The mailing will also include a toll-free number jailed voters can use to reach our attorneys if they need assistance navigating the voting process in Georgia.

Jail voting rights efforts elsewhere in 2020 

  • In Ohio: Demos and our partners were at the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals this week to defend a landmark injunction we won requiring that Ohio provide absentee ballots to voters who are jailed in the days leading up to an election;
  • In Texas: Demos is providing legal analysis to support advocates pushing for Harris County Jail and other jails in Texas to increase access to voting for people who are incarcerated, enabling them to vote either in person at the jail or by absentee ballot;
  • In Massachusetts: The grassroots organization Emancipation Initiative released a report on structural barriers preventing jailed voters from exercising their right to vote, and endorsed legislation that would ensure ballot access; 
  • In Maryland: Directly impacted people are engaging in advocacy efforts to increase access to the ballot in Maryland jails; and
  • In Chicago: Cook County Jail, which houses approximately 6,000 people on any given day, will host a polling station for jailed voters for the first time, pursuant to a new state law.

For more information on Demos’ work to defend the voting rights of jail detainees, read our latest article.