Not all would-be voters are as excited as Meggen Massey was when she discovered that she had retained her voting rights while in jail. Susan Burton, who runs A New Way of Life Reentry Project in L.A. and is the person who registered Massey, says that she sometimes finds “individuals who have completely lost faith in the system” in her registration visits. That’s something Burton, who was once incarcerated herself, understands. I asked her if she had ever thought about voting while she was behind bars. “I cut off everything emotional,” she replied. “I didn’t think about those things. I just tried to get through the time.”
Faced with voter skepticism, Mbekeani-Wiley and Lim both point detainees to the parts of the ballot that have direct effects on the criminal-justice system, such as races for district attorney, sheriff, and judicial positions. “I started telling them, ‘You can vote for judges,’ and that is something that sparked a lot of people’s interest … People who are defendants know who the good judges are,” Mbekeani-Wiley said.
For now, the voter-education options inside jails are limited; many detainees face the challenge of figuring out who and what to vote for without access to a computer, newspaper, or TV. Massey explained that when she registered, she was given a sample ballot, which she said provided only the most basic information about what she’d be voting on. She wanted more. She asked her mother to send her printouts of the information she needed. “I would ask her, ‘Hey, could you look up this proposition that’s going on on this ballot?’ and ‘Can you look these people up so that I know exactly what their positions are and their history?’”
With all these barriers to voting, the number of people who vote from jail is typically modest.
It’s impossible to know what voter turnout in jails looks like across the board, given the lack of national data, but county-level numbers provide some detail. To give some examples: In Middlesex County in Massachusetts, Colleen Kirby said that 13 out of the 24 people who requested ballots in the 2016 presidential election submitted them, of a total population of around 800 people. In Cook County, 1,200 ballots cast in the 2016 presidential election came from the jail, where the population hovers at around 7,000, according to The Chicago Reporter. And in Houston, Durrel Douglas said that 29 people out of the 662 they registered ended up casting a ballot in this year’s primary elections.
But, as Esther Lim points out, the voting population inside jails could have considerable electoral impact, particularly on tight races. “There are 17,000 people incarcerated [in the L.A. jail system] and over 10,000 who are actually eligible to register,” she says. “Say, for example, all 10,000 registered. I mean, they could really swing an election.”