Pennsylvanians turned out in huge numbers to vote in this year’s election, surpassing even the historic turnout for the last midterms. But there is still a lot of work to be done to increase voter participation among historically disenfranchised groups—including people who are incarcerated. Although most people incarcerated in county jails are eligible to vote, a lack of awareness and barriers to casting a ballot behind bars means that very few of them manage to exercise this basic democratic right.
This year, the Prison Society joined with a coalition that included the Committee of Seventy, the PENNfranchise Project, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, All Voting is Local, and others to empower more incarcerated people to vote. Together, we helped register 400 voters in Pennsylvania jails. Our work showed how this kind of outreach can drastically increase participation in the democratic process among incarcerated people, whose voices too often go unheard by policymakers making decisions that directly impact their lives.
Jails aren’t doing their part
Incarcerated people who are not serving a felony sentence that runs through the date of the election are eligible to vote in Pennsylvania. That means the vast majority of people held in county jails—most of whom are awaiting trial or serving time for misdemeanor convictions—are entitled to cast a ballot, though many of them may not realize it. A handful of other states disqualify people with felony records from voting, and those harsh policies have contributed to “a widespread misconception on who’s eligible to vote,” said Pat Christmas, policy director at Committee of Seventy.
Incarceration also creates complications when it comes to registering to vote and actually casting a ballot. Some people in jail have trouble accessing identification documents needed to register. Others may be unsure whether they’ll still be in jail come election day, and not know whether to request a mail-in ballot or what address to use if they do. They’re also dependent on jail staff to facilitate the process and send in their forms and ballots before a series of deadlines.
Unfortunately, jails are failing to do their part. In the 2020 election, only 52 people requested mail ballots from addresses associated with Pennsylvania county jails out of a statewide jail population of 25,000, according to an analysis by All Voting is Local, Committee of Seventy, Common Cause, and the Prison Society. Our coalition also found that most county jails did not have any written policy to support voting in jail, and a third had no established procedures to facilitate voting.
Proactive voter advocacy makes a difference
To help meet this need for voter support in jails, the Prison Society and other members of our coalition went to facilities in Philadelphia, Centre, and Cumberland counties to inform incarcerated people about their eligibility and help them register and apply for mail-in ballots. We also advised other volunteers who conducted outreach in the Delaware and Lancaster county jails.
In just two hours, the Prison Society’s Kirstin Cornnell registered 40 voters in the Cumberland County Prison. Inside the prison’s housing units, people came flocking to her table when she announced that being incarcerated didn’t negate their right to vote. “There was a lot of misunderstanding,” said Kirstin, the Prison Society’s family and community support director. Jails typically do little more than post flyers about voting or leave stacks of registration forms for people in custody to take. “Proactively putting out there, ‘Hey, most of you can vote,’ and having an opportunity where people can ask questions, no matter how big or small, really makes a difference,” Kirstin said.
Pushing for more support from jails
Efforts are also underway to get jails to take a more active role in ensuring access to the vote. The PENNfranchise Project worked with Centre County to pass “the most comprehensive vote-in-jail policy in Pennsylvania,” said executive director Leigh Owens. In addition to designating a point person in the jail to facilitate voting and tracking how many incarcerated people cast ballots, it provides opportunities for outside organizations to come into the jail and educate voters about elections.
Owens said education is especially important because incarcerated people often don't understand that elections impact their lives. They may not know about their power to elect local officials who hold sway over the criminal justice system. “I like to say, If you could vote out the judge that gave you a stiff sentence for a petty drug offense, wouldn’t you want to do that?" Owens said. Having “trusted messengers” from outside the jail share that knowledge, he said, is important to reaching incarcerated voters.
The PENNfranchise project is working to pass a new law that would create a statewide policy to support voting in county jails, using Centre County as a model.
The Prison Society’s executive director, Claire Shubik-Richards, points out that voting access in jails gives incarcerated people more say in the decisions that govern their treatment. "If the 3,000 or so eligible voters in the Philly jails understood that the mayor controls how those jails are run, and that they can vote for the mayor, I think a lot of them would vote, and the mayor would need to pay attention," says Claire.