You Still Have the Right to Vote in Jail, But Without Accountability You Won’t Have The Opportunity

A Pennsylvania-shaped, upside-down American flag that features hands reaching through its stripes, as if they were jail bars, holding a mail ballot

Voting rights do not end at the door of a holding cell. People who are in jail are often awaiting trial, conviction, or being held for minor crimes. In Pennsylvania, like most states, these people are eligible to register and vote, and no eligible voter should be denied their right. Yet, there is a sharp difference between being simply eligible to vote or register, and being able to make one’s voice heard. 

At any given time, there are roughly 750,000 Americans in jails and most of them are legally allowed to cast ballots. But few are able because people in jail are forced to rely on sheriffs and county officials to allow them access to the ballot. In Pennsylvania, county jails do not have a universal process for voter registration, voting by mail or voter education to make sure that their jails guarantee this right. 

That’s why measuring what county jails do and holding them accountable for providing ballot access is crucial. 

A new report by All Voting is Local, in partnership with the Committee of Seventy and Common Cause Pennsylvania, found that eligible voters in Pennsylvania jails face needless barriers to the ballot because most counties surveyed lack any policy to ensure voters could make their voices heard. Across the commonwealth, county jail administrators are not fulfilling their legal responsibility to voters. When eligible voters are denied the right to vote, not only are their voices silenced but also the voices of their families and communities. This alienates these communities from the political process and increases the number of Americans that have lost faith in our democracy.

Existing jail policies and procedures, where they exist at all, are not robust enough to serve voters in jail. As it stands, casting a ballot from jail is extremely difficult. But fixing this system is not.

The report used the state’s right to know request statute to survey 61 counties about their policies toward voting in jail. While 75% of county jails responded, the majority of counties had no policy at all, and those that did, did the bare minimum to communicate those policies. The problem is stark. Only 52 people out of 25,000 jailed throughout Pennsylvania requested mail ballots in the 2020 general election using an address associated with one of 18 county jails. 

While seven counties out of Pennsylvania’s 61 had detailed, written policies that clearly outline key dates, documents needed, and actions to take in order to be registered and vote by mail in an election, the vast majority did not. 13 counties had brief policies with vague language that do not offer helpful guidance. Further, 26 counties do not have a written policy regarding jail voting, and fifteen did not even respond, despite being legally obligated to do so under Pennsylvania’s open records laws.

The Pennsylvania report comes on the heels of another All Voting is Local report last month in Wisconsin that also showed most of the estimated 13,000 people in Wisconsin county jails are eligible to vote, but are often kept from casting their ballots because of administrative hoops and hurdles. Statewide, only 60 Wisconsinites registered from jail and only 50 people voted from jail in the 2020 elections. 

Continuing the trend, an Arizona coalition to end jail-based disenfranchisement, of which All Voting is Local is a member, found last July that only seven incarcerated voters cast a ballot in Arizona’s March presidential primary out of an estimated 2,700 eligible voters. In jail after jail without a statewide mandate, eligible voters are being silenced —unless jails are held accountable.

All Voting is Local aims to keep scrutinizing jails until voters have access to their rights. They are monitoring practices, including having active records requests out now in Wisconsin and Florida, and advocating for statewide practices that ensure that those who are eligible to vote and register can do so. Additionally, the Pennsylvania report urges jails to model best practices including: 

  • Have written policies: Establish detailed written policies with clear timelines and step-by-step instructions on when and how to provide voting information to people in jail and when to distribute and collect mail-in ballot applications and ballots.
  • Partner with county election officials: Partner with county election officials to ensure all communications are based on up-to-date information, track and confirm the status of submitted applications and ballots and ensure that out-of-county people in jail are able to request the correct ballots.
  • Designate a voting official: Designate a single official to be responsible for jail voting procedures and serve as the point of contact on voting issues to people in jail and outside organizations and officials.
  • Conduct proactive outreach: – Conduct proactive outreach to people in jail, informing them of their rights through a variety of media, making ballot applications and voter registration forms available early, opening multiple lines of communication for questions and explicitly guaranteeing ballot secrecy.

Unless state and county officials act, thousands of eligible voters in Pennsylvania county jails will continue to be denied their right to register to vote, cast a ballot and have that ballot counted in future elections. Every county jail administrative decision-maker must develop a detailed policy that affirms eligible voters in jail will be provided with an opportunity to vote in every election. There is no excuse for the law to not be applied evenly. 

Existing jail policies and procedures, where they exist at all, are not robust enough to serve voters in jail. As it stands, casting a ballot from jail is extremely difficult. But fixing this system is not. Because the problem is often a lack of policies, making needed changes doesn’t involve changing the law. There is time to make these changes before the next election — it’s up to Pennsylvania sheriffs and county jail decision makers to have the will. We’ll be watching.

Alex Ault is All Voting is Local’s policy consultant. All Voting is Local is a campaign of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights fighting to remove needless and discriminatory barriers to the ballot in eight states: AZ, FL, GA, MI, NV, OH, PA and WI.