In Just Two States, All Prisoners Can Vote. Here's Why Few Do.

By Nicole Lewis, The Marshall Project

Prisoners at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland, Vermont, register to vote in 2008. Only two states, Vermont and Maine allow people to vote while they're in prison. TOBY TALBOT/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Prisoners at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland, Vermont, register to vote in 2008. Only two states, Vermont and Maine allow people to vote while they're in prison. TOBY TALBOT/ASSOCIATED PRESS

When Sen. Bernie Sanders championed voting rights for prisoners during a CNN town hall, he spotlighted an intensifying national debate about why going to prison means losing the right to vote.

In only two states, Maine and Vermont, all prisoners are eligible to vote. However, some prisoners in Mississippi, Alaska and Alabama can vote while incarcerated, depending on their convictions. Sanders is the sole presidential candidate to support the idea of prisoners voting, regardless of their crimes. His stance may reflect the reality that his home state of Vermont, and its neighbor Maine, have long-established procedures, and general public acceptance, of people voting from behind bars.

The idea is percolating in other states, however. In June, six of the 13 councilmembers in Washington, D.C. endorsed legislation that would let the city’s prisoners vote. Legislators in MassachusettsHawaiiNew Mexico and Virginia introduced measures to allow prisoners to vote earlier this year. None succeeded, but several others states are making it easier for people to vote once they leave prison. In May, Nevada’s governor signed a bill that automatically restores voting rights for parolees. And, last year, voters in Florida re-enfranchised nearly 1.5 million residents with felony convictions while Louisiana restored voting rights for nearly 36,000 people convicted of felonies. Lawmakers are still considering similar proposals in Connecticut,New Jersey and Nebraska.

Still, most prisoners lose the right to vote while incarcerated. Roughly 15 states automatically restore voting rights upon release, but several states such as Alabama and Mississippi ban people from voting for life for some crimes.

Why are Vermont and Maine outliers? They share several characteristics that make voting by prisoners less controversial. Incarcerated people can only vote by absentee ballot in the place where they last lived. They are not counted as residents of the town that houses a prison, which means their votes can’t sway local elections if they vote as a bloc. And unlike many states, the majority of prisoners in Maine and Vermont are white, which defuses the racial dimensions of felony disenfranchisement laws.

Laws barring people with felony convictions from voting first began cropping up in Southern states during the Jim Crow era. Many voting rights advocates say the laws were a deliberate attempt to limit black political power. Of the nearly 6.1 million people estimated to be disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, nearly 40 percent are black, according to a 2018 report by the Sentencing Project.

Joseph Jackson, founder of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, suspects the racial demographics in Maine and Vermont may account for the fact that prisoners in either state never lost the right to vote. In Maine and Vermont, black people represent a larger share of prisoners compared to their share of the general population, but are a minority of the state's prisoners overall, nearly 7 and 10 percent respectively.

In Maine and Vermont, the state constitutions guarantee voting rights for all citizens, interpreted to include incarcerated people from the earliest days of statehood (in Vermont, a legal decision dates from 1799). Past attempts to exclude those convicted of serious crimes have failed in the legislatures. Currently, there is no organized opposition in either state to voting from prison.

Corrections officials in both states encourage inmates to vote, but rely on volunteers to register inmates. In recent election years, voting advocacy organizations such as the League of Women Voters and the NAACP have coordinated with corrections departments to hold voter registration drives in the prisons. To bridge the information gap, they share one-pagers with information about the state candidates and explain their positions on key issues.

Yet the barriers to voting, both external and internal, remain high. Incarcerated people are restricted from using the Internet and often cut off from news in the places they used to live. They are not allowed to campaign for candidates, display posters or show other signs of political partisanship.

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Olivia McDowellComment