Assisting Voters in Jail

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At a Glance

About 750,000 people are incarcerated in jails across the United States every day, most of whom retain their right to vote. Casting a ballot, though, can be impossible for these eligible voters simply because they are incarcerated. CLC has launched a program to fight jail-based disenfranchisement using advocacy and litigation to ensure eligible voters in jails have the ballot access they need to exercise their fundamental right to vote.

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Harris County Jail is one of the largest jails in the nation.

The majority of the 9,000 people incarcerated at Harris County Jail in Texas are being held pre-trial or for misdemeanor charges, meaning they remain eligible to vote despite their incarcerations.

The state has a constitutional obligation to ensure these voters can exercise their...

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About this Action

Although most people who are incarcerated in jails across the county retain their right to vote, few actually cast ballots. This is not because they lack the urge to vote; it is because they often can’t.

Casting a ballot from jail is enormously difficult. Election infrastructure is not built to serve incarcerated voters. In some states, this lack of access is obvious, for example if states do not consider incarceration a valid excuse to use absentee or emergency voting mechanisms to cast ballots from jail. Even if jailed voters are permitted to use these systems on paper, as a practical matter, it is often not possible for them to do so. Jailed voters are isolated and cannot independently access the information they need not only to understand how absentee or emergency voting works, but also to determine whether they are eligible, when elections are being held, and what will be on the ballot. Also, because voters in jails often must rely on vote by mail systems or assistance from third parties to cast their ballots, they are at risk of being disenfranchised by delays in the jail mail system, visitation restrictions, and the difficulties of navigating complicated jail bureaucracies. 

This problem is particularly urgent because of who it impacts. Jails disproportionately incarcerate voters of color, low income voters, homeless voters, and voters with disabilities, so jail-based disenfranchisement disproportionately deprives those who have been historically marginalized of their political voices.

Although the Supreme Court affirmed that eligible voters in jails could not be deprived of their right to vote almost 50 years ago, eligible incarcerated voters continue to confront barriers to ballot access that make voting difficult or impossible. CLC, though, is working to change that by combatting the causes of jail-based disenfranchisement and putting ballots into the hands of eligible, incarcerated voters across the county.

 

CLC’s Role

CLC seeks to challenge jail-based disenfranchisement using a comprehensive strategy of litigation and policy advocacy. CLC works with partners on the ground to provide legal support and guidance on projects to fight jail-based disenfranchisement. CLC has also consulted directly with states and localities to provide technical assistance in crafting and implementing measures to expand ballot access in jails. Finally, when advocacy fails, CLC litigates claims to vindicate the rights of jailed voters who are disenfranchised and challenge unconstitutional state laws that prevent these eligible voters from casting their ballots.  

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