Ballots Behind Bars: Voting Presents Challenges In Connecticut Jails | Connecticut Public Radio
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Ballots Behind Bars: Voting Presents Challenges In Connecticut Jails

Oct 27, 2020

People detained in jails pretrial or those serving a sentence for a misdemeanor offense are eligible to vote in Connecticut. Yet, out of the more than 3,000 eligible inmates, most are not expected to have their votes counted in the upcoming election. 

The state Department of Correction began an initiative this summer to get eligible inmates registered. Nicole Thibeault, the DOC’s director of reentry services, said they handed out packets with eligibility criteria and information on how to apply for an absentee ballot.

“We distributed these information packages to every single incarcerated individual in our custody at the time,” Thibeault said. “We gave them information on what to do when they’re discharged, how to restore their voting rights. Any type of correspondence regarding voting, we offered them free envelopes so they wouldn’t have to pay or use their own envelopes.”

In the past, volunteers and voting advocacy groups visited the state’s correctional facilities to encourage inmates to register. But in March, all visitation was suspended due to the pandemic.

Law schools at Yale and Quinnipiac universities provided additional information a few weeks ago to about 3,400 detained eligible voters, according to Zal Shroff from Yale Law School’s Liman Center. He says around 70 inmates had initially tried to register and obtain ballots. And after Yale got involved at least 100 more had registered and requested absentee ballots. But Shroff said few have actually cast their vote.

“From what we can see, it looks like about five people have been able to both receive their ballot and then return it to their election clerk,” Shroff said. “Five out of 3,400 is a really low number, which I think highlights the problems that exist here.”

Among the problems, said Shroff, are limited access to registration forms, jail mail delays and bureaucratic obstacles.

The DOC’s Thibeault is not surprised by the low number. “Last year we had an advocacy group go to York, the female prison. It was a pilot project that we tried in York last year. And out of the 100 to 200 that they tried to engage as part of that project only 10 ended up fully voting.”

Thibeault believes there’s a lack of understanding about voting from prison that extends beyond the inmate population. She’s heard reports about town clerks calling the DOC and asking whether inmates who’ve requested registration forms are actually eligible to vote.

“If I have a town clerk’s office under the assumption that anybody who’s incarcerated can’t vote, then I’m imagining that the inmates think they can’t vote either,” Thibeault said. “One hundred people out of 3,200 inmates that are eligible, it’s a really small amount. And this is from us trying to engage them, Yale Law trying to engage them, all these different people engaging them -- it’s still a very small amount.”

The number of inmates casting ballots isn’t likely to increase by much with Election Day less than a week away. And if inmates receive their absentee ballot through the mail on or close to Election Day, how is the ballot delivered? Yale’s Shroff said the DOC has been identified as a caretaker for this election only.

“So DOC can actually help by taking ballots and delivering them to a local election official or dropping them off in a drop box,” Shroff said.

But that’s where there seems to be more confusion. Thibeault said there is no policy in place that defines the DOC as a designee.

Gabe Rosenberg, a spokesman for the secretary of the state’s office, acknowledges there are multiple hurdles for people voting from jail. He said everyone agrees that people, including inmates, who have the right to vote should be able to cast their ballot. But Rosenberg said it starts with understanding voting rights for people in jail. This includes notifying inmates of their right to vote if they are eligible.

“Just getting over that educational hurdle where, to notify the people who have the right to vote, that they actually do have the right to vote, unlike some other people that they may be incarcerated with, is really big as well.”

Rosenberg said the secretary of the state has been pushing to remove barriers to make it easier for eligible inmates to exercise their right to vote.

Even a short time in jail makes someone less likely to vote in future elections, according to a study by the American Political Science Review.