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In an election where every vote matters, Georgia officials should ensure registered voters in jails can cast their ballots

Sheriffs and local election officials must do everything in their power to ensure detained individuals can exercise their fundamental right to vote.

by Wanda Bertram and Naila Awan, November 18, 2022

With the upcoming Senate runoff election in Georgia likely coming down to a few thousand votes, an overlooked form of disenfranchisement deserves attention: The huge barriers to voting for people locked up in locally-run jails (which we explained in depth in our 2020 report Eligible, but Excluded).

Roughly 39,000 people are held in Georgia’s county jails on any given day (a number very close, coincidentally, to the 36,000-vote difference in the general election between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker at the moment). While it’s not known exactly how many of these people meet the qualifications to vote, the number is likely in the thousands because:

  • Most people in county jails are there awaiting trial, and Georgia does not restrict voter eligibility for people charged with a crime (though people already on probation or parole are ineligible).
  • Of the minority of people in Georgia jails who are serving a sentence, most are serving a misdemeanor sentence. Georgia does not restrict voter eligibility for people convicted of misdemeanors.

Any of these eligible voters who are already registered qualify to vote in the runoff election.

Incarcerated people’s diverse voices and opinions should be heard in our democracy, yet people in jail will likely be excluded from the close race for this pivotal Senate seat. But there are things sheriffs and local election officials can do to ensure that detainees can cast their votes:

  • Make people in jail aware of their likely eligibility and the absentee ballot deadlines. One of the main reasons people in jail do not vote (despite being eligible) is because they think they’re not allowed to. Jail and election officials can coordinate to identify people who are incarcerated who are eligible to vote in the county and conduct affirmative outreach to them.
  • Enable and assist people in requesting an absentee ballot by the November 28 deadline. Jail officials must make sure people have access to ID information, such as their driver’s license number, needed to complete an absentee ballot application. They should also facilitate people in jail being able to submit ballot applications not just by snail mail, but also via the state’s online portal, email, or fax.
  • Allow incarcerated people to receive absentee ballots in time by ensuring election mail is processed in a timely way, and provided in its original, physical form. (Many jails currently ban postal mail; needless to say, these jails should make an exception for ballots.)
  • Help incarcerated people submit absentee ballots on time by quickly mailing any absentee ballots cast by incarcerated voters and guaranteeing that commissary is available so people can purchase stamps (or better yet, the jail can provide stamps for free).
  • Ensure that people in jail have contact information for their local board of elections, can track the status of their ballot, and are able to fix any deficiencies with their absentee ballot.

Barring people in jails from voting “is a social injustice and a civic indignity,” wrote Rev. Jesse Jackson in a 2020 Chicago Sun-Times op-ed. “Not surprisingly,” Jackson noted, “it disproportionately impacts African Americans, Latinos, and the poor.” People in jail are citizens who stand to be affected by laws around things like housing, healthcare, and of course, criminal justice. In Georgia — and everywhere people in jails are effectively disenfranchised — sheriffs and election officials must do everything in their power to ensure these individuals can exercise their basic right to vote.

Wanda Bertram is the Communications Strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact) Naila Awan is Director of Advocacy at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

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