Push to expand voting rights in US for those held in jails
Inmates at the Cook County, Illinois, jail vote in a local election at the jail's Division 11 Chapel on Saturday, February 18, 2023, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO (AP) — The voting precinct could have been any one of hundreds throughout Chicago, except that these voters in the first round of the mayoral election were all wearing the same beige smocks. And the security at this polling place wasn’t intended to keep disrupters and campaigners out, but the voters in.

When first-time voter Tykarri Skillon finished studying the list of nine candidates, looking for those who shared his priorities on jobs and affordable housing, he marked his ballot and then was escorted with other voters back to their cells in the Cook County Jail.

The 25-year-old, awaiting trial on a weapons charge, is part of a group not always mentioned in discussions about voting disenfranchisement. People serving sentences for felony convictions lose their right to vote. Detainees awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences do retain that right, but face barriers to exercising it in many parts of the United States.

The Cook County Jail, with more than 5,500 inmates and detainees, is one of the largest such facilities in the nation. It is one of several lockups where voting rights advocates have worked with local election and jail officials to offer voting for those held there. The list includes jails in Denver; Harris County, Texas; Los Angeles County; and the District of Columbia.

Expanding jailhouse voting is one of the latest steps to combine voting rights with criminal justice changes.

“It feels good to have a voice,” Skillon said after casting his ballot during early voting, before the race went to an April 4 runoff. “We’re going home someday, so we should have a voice in our community.”

Candidates he chose from included the current mayor, Democrat Lori Lightfoot. Among the issues that damaged her politically was rising crime. She eventually came in third in the election, bumping her from an April 4 runoff between the two top vote-getters, also Democrats.

The most recent survey from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, released last December, showed that 451,400 of the 636,300 people held in jails across the country had not been convicted and thus should retain their right to vote.

Voting rights for pretrial detainees and inmates serving sentences for misdemeanors were upheld in a US Supreme Court decision from 1974, in a case from New York, O'Brien versus Skinner.

Despite that ruling, voting rights advocates say a “de facto disenfranchisement” exists because of mistakes over eligibility and the difficulties that detainees and prisoners face in registering or voting.

In a 2020 report, the Prison Policy Initiative focused on three main reasons: registration is difficult due to issues such as mail-in ballot deadlines and voter ID laws; detention does not meet the criteria for absentee voting in some jurisdictions; and the churn of the jail populations.

At least one state, Tennessee, had a bill introduced this year to address one of the barriers. Being in jail as a pretrial detainee is not one of the reasons considered valid for granting a mail ballot request, said Democratic state Senator Jeff Yarbro, the bill's sponsor. Yabro, who recently announced he was running for mayor of Nashville, wants that changed.

“Being a full citizen should be the default," he said. "Everybody ought to have the expectation of fully participating in a democracy."

In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, about 75 per cent of the nearly 10,000 people held in jail are pretrial. The sheriff's department established a polling place there in 2019, working with the county elections office, and has allowed voting during the past two election cycles. Before that, detainees voted only by mail.

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