Most people in jail1 are legally eligible to vote, but in practice, they can’t. This “de facto disenfranchisement” stems from numerous factors, including widespread misinformation about eligibility, myriad barriers to voter registration, and challenges to casting a ballot. Below, we explain who in jail is eligible to vote (state by state), discuss the barriers that keep them from voting, and offer recommendations for advocates, policymakers, election officials, and sheriffs to ensure that people in jail are able to vote.
|Does the nature of a person’s current detention impose barriers on voting eligibility?||Do any prior criminal convictions separately impose barriers on voting eligibility?|
|Detained pretrial||Serving misdemeanor sentence||Serving felony sentence||Currently on probation||Currently on parole||Prior felony conviction|
|Alabama||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier*||Barrier*||Barrier*||Barrier*|
|Alaska||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Arizona||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier*|
|Arkansas||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|California||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Colorado||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Connecticut||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Delaware||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier*|
|Florida||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier*|
|Georgia||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Hawaii||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Idaho||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Illinois||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Indiana||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Iowa||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier3|
|Kansas||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Louisiana||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier*||Barrier*||No Barrier|
|Maine||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Maryland||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Massachusetts||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Michigan||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Minnesota||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Mississippi||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier*|
|Missouri||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Montana||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Nebraska||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier*|
|Nevada||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|New Hampshire||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|New Jersey||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|New Mexico||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|New York||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier*||No Barrier|
|North Carolina||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|North Dakota||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Ohio||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Oklahoma||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Oregon||No Barrier||Barrier4||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Pennsylvania||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Rhode Island||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|South Carolina||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|South Dakota||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Tennessee||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier*|
|Texas||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Utah||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Vermont||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|Virginia||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier*|
|Washington||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Washington, D.C.||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier5||No Barrier||No Barrier||No Barrier|
|West Virginia||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Wisconsin||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||No Barrier|
|Wyoming||No Barrier||No Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier||Barrier*|
Most people in jail are legally eligible to vote, but they are prevented from doing so by numerous barriers.
One of the biggest barriers to voting in jail is the fact that local election officials often don’t know that most people in jail can vote, and it’s not unusual for such officials to provide incorrect information in response to questions about the issue.6 The spread of inaccurate eligibility information can also occur when registration forms contain incorrect, confusing, or incomplete information about criminal disenfranchisement laws. Given that election officials and election materials can be wrong, it should be no surprise that people working at and detained in jails are frequently confused about eligibility as well.
Even when someone knows they are eligible to vote, numerous obstacles still stand in the way of doing so, beginning with the myriad obstacles to registering to vote from jail:
Many of the above-mentioned barriers to registration also arise in the context of actually casting ballots. These include early deadlines (particularly with respect to absentee ballot procedures); requirements that IDs be presented or that absentee ballots be notarized; incarcerated people’s limited access to voting forms, election resources, and their own personal information and/or documents; and the difficulty of confirming that a ballot has been received and/or accepted by election officials. Delays in jail mail may also impede the timely casting of ballots.
Barriers to obtaining and submitting ballots also include:
The average jail stay is between three and four weeks, with many people incarcerated for much shorter periods of time (leading to high population-turnover rates, a phenomenon known as jail churn). Consequently, some people may register to vote while free, but end up in jail on Election Day (or for the duration of the voting period). Conversely, some people may register to vote in jail, but end up released prior to casting a ballot. In either scenario, a person’s registration information will not match their status on Election Day, and these people frequently find that they are unable to vote.
The specific work that needs to be done to enable eligible voters to cast their ballots from jail depends on the state in which they are located and the laws of that state. But in all states, there are opportunities for a wide range of actors to contribute to enfranchisement efforts.
The barriers facing incarcerated voters are numerous, and legislative and executive leaders have often been slow to address them. In addition, the difficulties of voting from jail are compounded by the fact that jail voting falls within the purview of two distinct authorities: local sheriffs (who oversee and operate jails) and election officials (who bear responsibility for implementing voting procedures). A lack of cooperation (or downright obstruction) on the part of either of those actors can—and often does—make voting impossible for many jailed people who retain the right to cast a ballot.
Righting the wrong of jail-based voter disenfranchisement will not be a simple task, and the nature of the challenge will vary from state to state. However, advocates, policymakers, election officials, and sheriffs can all play a role in protecting the rights of eligible voters by combatting confusion about voting rules, eliminating unnecessary voting restrictions, and addressing the myriad logistical difficulties that prevent people in jail from casting ballots. Successful reforms will enable thousands of eligible voters to make their voices heard and will affirm that the voice of every voter matters.
Ginger and the Prison Policy Initiative thank the numerous experts who provided their insights during the preparation of this report, including Alec Ewald at the University of Vermont, Brenda Wright and Naila Awan at Demos, Leah Aden at NAACP LDF, Dana Paikowsky at the Campaign Legal Center, Dr. Brenda Williams at Family Unit, Inc, and Jen Dean at Chicago Votes. The author also thanks Peter Wagner, Emily Widra, Wanda Bertram, and Wendy Sawyer for their editorial guidance and technical support.
Rev. Dr. Yeary and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition thank the members of its boards of directors and the network of staff professionals, faith leaders, and community partners who stand in solidarity in the fight for the franchise. We especially thank Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. for the clarity of moral voice, conscience, and vision in advancing the cause of equal access to the ballot box.
Ginger Jackson-Gleich is Policy Counsel at the Prison Policy Initiative, where she is primarily focused on advancing the Initiative’s campaign to end prison gerrymandering. Ginger has been involved in criminal justice reform for over 15 years and joins us in the interim period between clerking for Judge Edward Chen in the Northern District of California and Justice Mariano Florentino Cuéllar at the California Supreme Court. As a Harvard Law School student, Ginger interned at the Criminal Law Reform Project of the ACLU, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office. She also represented low-income clients with the Harvard Defenders and the Criminal Justice Institute and served as an editor of the Harvard Law Review.
The Reverend S. Todd Yeary, J.D., Ph.D. is the Senior Vice-President and Chief of Global Policy of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Inc., and serves as Senior Pastor of the Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore. Dr. Yeary is also an adjunct professor in the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore, teaching courses on Race, American Government, American Politics, and Community Building Strategies. Dr. Yeary holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Management from National-Louis University, a Master of Divinity Degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, the Graduate Certificate in African Studies from Northwestern University, the Doctor of Philosophy Degree (Ph.D.) in the area of Religion in Society and Personality from Northwestern, and the Doctor of Law (JD) from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. Alongside reports like this that help the public more fully engage in criminal justice reform, the organization leads the nation’s fight to keep the prison system from exerting undue influence on the political process (known as prison gerrymandering) and plays a leading role in protecting the families of incarcerated people from the predatory prison and jail telephone industry and the video visitation industry.
The Rainbow PUSH Coalition (RPC) is a multi-racial, multi-issue, progressive, international membership organization fighting for social change. RPC was formed in December 1996 by Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. through the merging of two organizations he founded earlier, People United to Serve Humanity (PUSH, 1971) and the Rainbow Coalition (1984). The organization works to protect, defend, and gain civil rights by leveling the economic and educational playing fields, and to promote peace and justice around the world.
The majority of people in jail can vote, but we do not provide a more precise national estimate because the way jail data is reported at the national level makes it impossible to determine precisely how many people are eligible under each state’s different laws. It may be possible to calculate the number of eligible voters at an individual jail and/or at all jails in a particular state, but — at the time this piece was published — it was not possible to collect such information on a national basis. ↩
Although the precise number of people in jail may fluctuate from day to day, there is no reason to think that the number on Election Day would be meaningfully different from the daily average or that the composition of eligible/ineligible voters that are in jail on that day would be anomalous. Additionally, some people in jail cannot vote because of age or citizenship, but these individuals represent a small portion of the U.S. jail population; in 2018, there were approximately 3,400 juveniles held in adult jails, and in 2013, there were approximately 35,000 non-citizens held in jails (these are the last years for which data are available). ↩
In August 2020, Governor Kim Reynolds restored voting rights for people with felony convictions (excluding homicides) via executive order, so people with past non-homicide felony convictions are no longer permanently disenfranchised. Presumably, until the law changes, people with new convictions may be permanently disenfranchised. ↩
Oregon does not disenfranchise all people serving sentences for misdemeanor convictions; it only disenfranchises people “serving a term of imprisonment in any federal correctional institution.” See Or. Rev. Stat. 137.281(5). ↩
In July 2020, the D.C. Council enacted legislation authorizing voting by people incarcerated on felony convictions. ↩
The most incisive discussion of the impact of sheriffs and election officials misunderstanding the law is the ACLU and Brennan Center’s 2008 report, De Facto Disenfranchisement. Readers should note, however, that one of the key examples discussed in that report — Kentucky — appears to be outdated, as our research indicates that Kentucky disenfranchises people incarcerated for misdemeanor convictions. ↩
For example, in California “new voters may have to show a form of identification or proof of residency the first time they vote, if a driver license or SSN was not provided when registering.” (See step 2 of this online voter registration tool.) ↩
Those states are: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. For more info, see this report from the National Conference of State Legislatures. ↩
The National Voting Registration Act (1993) requires states covered by the Act to offer voter registration opportunities at motor vehicle agencies and also permits states to designate additional government agencies as places that offer voter registration services. ↩
In addition to the 19 states (and D.C.) that currently permit same-day registration on Election Day, New Mexico will begin to allow Election Day registration in 2021, and North Carolina currently permits same-day registration during early voting but not on Election Day. ↩