As election day approaches, we are proud to support a new bill that would expand voting access for incarcerated people in Pennsylvania. The Prison Society’s Kirstin Cornnell rallied in Harrisburg last week with Rep. Rick Krajewski, who introduced legislation that would require correctional institutions to adopt a policy to support voting behind bars.
“This legislation is an important step in building back trust in a system that has failed many incarcerated people,” Kirstin said.
Most people incarcerated in Pennsylvania jails are eligible to vote, but very few actually cast a ballot. The new bill would help change that.
How the bill counteracts the mass disenfranchisement of incarcerated people
Incarcerated people who are not currently serving a felony sentence and are otherwise eligible to vote can cast a ballot in Pennsylvania. But misconceptions about eligibility, a lack of voter education, and minimal support from prison administrators mean that many struggle to navigate the complicated process of voting behind bars, if they are even aware they can do so.
“It wasn’t something that even came up while I was incarcerated,” says Leigh Owens, the executive director of the PENNfranchise Project, which is part of a coalition that advocated for the new legislation. “It doesn't get talked about, there's no education around it, there's no inviting people to take part in the process that are eligible.”
The neglect of voting rights in jails has led to the mass disenfranchisement of incarcerated people. 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.
The new state law would require jails to follow a uniform policy to educate incarcerated people about voting and facilitate the process of casting a ballot, from distributing registration forms to collecting and delivering completed ballots. It also calls for jails to have designated staff members in charge of carrying out the process, and to report data on voter participation.
Owens, of the PENNfranchise Project, successfully advocated for a similar policy that took effect in Centre County. “We saw a tremendous increase in voter registration,” he says, “about double what they had been doing” in the county jail. He says supporting the right to vote in jail not only helps increase participation in our democracy, but serves as an entry point to civic engagement that can pay dividends down the road.
“At PENNfranchise, we view voting as sort of a pathway into advocacy work,” he says, one that can inspire incarcerated people to create positive changes when they return to their communities.