Law \ Legal

No Bail for Pretrial Detainees Means No Vote


Every election, thousands of eligible voters fail to turn out ballots because they reside in a jail cell, not convicted of a crime, simply because they can’t raise money bail.

The Supreme Court has upheld protections for presumed innocent pretrial detainees to access ballots and register to vote, but several obstacles restrict these individuals of that right, reports Stateline, a publication of  Pew Charitable Trusts. 

Advocates says the obstacles, which they call “de facto disenfranchisement,” affect the roughly 445,000 Americans in jail not convicted of crimes—many of whom cannot afford bail.

“That is creating a system where if you are rich enough, you can access your right to vote, because you’ll be able to get out of pretrial detention,” said Sylvia Albert of Common Cause, an advocacy group for voting rights.

“And if you aren’t rich enough, then you can’t access your right to vote.”

The lack of access extends beyond those held while awaiting trial.

Nationally, about 100,000 people serve sentences for misdemeanors in jails on any given day, according to estimates from the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice think tank. Yet, depending on state laws, many retain their voting rights even while incarcerated.

Black and Hispanic Americans face the brunt of the issue — who, despite making up 30 percent of the U.S. population, account for 52 percent of the country’s jail population.

Lengthy jail stays — the average jail stay is 28 days — jails not being recognized as an excuse for voting absentee in many states and other situations help hamper jailed individuals from voting or registering to vote.

According to Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative, many people in jail don’t know they are allowed to vote. Many think they are disqualified from voting, which makes it difficult for eligible voters to find a way to vote from jail.

The lack of government attention to jail voting has persisted even as the number of pretrial detainees in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s.

“There are just so many individual logistical problems with trying to vote from jail,” Bertram said.

This summary was prepared by TCR Associate Editor James Van Bramer.

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