Voting nearly impossible for eligible voters behind bars

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FILE - In this March 14, 2020, file photo, a Cook County jail inmate participates in early voting for the Illinois primary at the jail in Chicago. Most of the three-quarters of a million people held in U.S. jails have the right to vote, but many of them are unable to, stymied by misinformation, limited access to registration and ballots and confusion from the officials in charge. The advocacy organization released a report detailing voting access for jail inmates with Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a civil rights advocacy group formed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

BOISE, Idaho – Most of the three-quarters of a million people held in U.S. jails have the right to vote. But many of them are unable to, stymied by misinformation, limited access to registration and ballots and confusion from the officials in charge.

The result is widespread voter disenfranchisement, say experts with the Prison Policy Initiative. The advocacy organization released a report detailing voting access for jail inmates with Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a civil rights advocacy group formed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, on Friday.

“I think that the clearest situation to this would be to make voting machines available in every jail on election day,” PPI lawyer Ginger Jackson-Gleich said Thursday. She co-authored the report with Rev. S. Todd Yeary of Rainbow PUSH.

“Put simply, of the approximately 746,000 individuals in jail on any given day, most have the right to vote,” Jackson-Gleich and Yeary wrote.

That's because most people in jail haven't been convicted, but instead are awaiting trial on the charges for which they are being held. While those convicted of a felony lose their right to vote in most states for at least the time they are incarcerated, many of the people serving time in jail are serving time for misdemeanors, and most states allow people with misdemeanor convictions to vote.

Very few get to actually exercise that right, the study found. Confusion, logistical barriers and timing issues abound.

“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,” the authors wrote

Many states rely on absentee ballots for incarcerated voters. But inmates may need to register before they can get absentee ballots, and many states require specific forms of ID for voter registration. Inmates typically have their belongings — including their drivers' licenses or other forms of identification — confiscated when they are put in jail, which means they can't meet the requirements to register.