Edited with permission from a post on the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County Facebook page – Cindy
I went to jail today. No, this was voluntary. I went to the Culpeper jail to talk to the inmates about voter registration, absentee voting and voter rights restoration. I spoke to six separate groups in the small jail library. None of the 90 or so inmates I spoke with said they were currently registered to vote.
[Although those serving time for a felony are unable to vote in Virginia (and those who have completed their sentence can only vote by successfully petitioning the Governor), those awaiting trial and those serving time for misdemeanors are permitted to vote.]
The head jailer, Capt. John Jenkins was very supportive of my efforts and said no one has ever done this before at their jail. [Interestingly, those who are incarcerated, whether they have voting rights or not, are counted on the Census towards the population for drawing a legislative or Congressional district. As a result, penal institutions are very often gerrymandered into Republican districts.]
Only one inmate filled out the registration form while I was there. He should be able to vote absentee in this year’s election. There are 19 separate reasons why someone can vote absentee. Two of them are for being confined in jail–one due to awaiting trial, the other due to serving time for a misdemeanor.
[This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, because the inmate has to show appropriate photo identification when registering by mail, which can require scanning a photo ID. Not every jail will be accommodating. Also, inmates may or may not have a current photo identification, depending on how long they’ve been incarcerated. Additionally, some jails have restrictions on mail coming and going to inmates that make absentee voting difficult.]
Unfortunately, probably half had prior felony convictions which means their voting rights had been taken away. But most didn’t know that voter rights restoration is much simpler than it used to be. The Governor is working to restore voting rights for most people who have been convicted of a felony, but it is a slow process. I told them that if they make the restoration request that they move to the front of the line. That seemed to interest many of them and 33 asked for the form.
All the inmates were polite although some were more interested than others. It would not be surprising if voting was not high on their list of priorities what with all they are having to deal with right now. But I explained that while they have fewer freedoms than the general public, voting (if eligible) is something they can do like anyone else.
I think if the inmates go to the trouble of restoring their voting rights, registering and voting that is a good indication of their interest in reconnecting with their community. [A recent study by the Florida Crime Commission found that recidivism was one third as high among those who had their rights restored following release from incarceration.] I think that judges, probation officers and future employers would see it as a positive. It was heartening that so many now wanted to have their rights restored. I want to go to more jails now to do the same thing.