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Yes, You Can Cast a Vote From Jail

jail exterior
People in jails, like the Richmond city jail, have the right to vote, but it's not always easy to exercise that right. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Most people who are in jail have the right to vote,  including people who have been convicted of a misdemeanor or who are awaiting trial. But voting in jail isn’t always easy. 

Just like everyone in the general population, people in jail have to register. But they’re required to vote absentee and must request a ballot, and  must not have a felony conviction. Only two states and the District of Columbia allow people with a felony to vote while they're incarcerated.  

Virginia state law requires jail officials to take steps to make sure that every person who is in their custody who is eligible to vote can exercise that right. But Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, says some jails are more inclined to provide that access than others. 

“I mean, their mail is handled by the people who have them in custody,” she said. “And so it's really critically important for regional jail superintendents and sheriffs to undertake their affirmative obligation and duty to make sure that everybody in their custody who's eligible to vote has the opportunity to do so.”

The ACLU works with the League of Women Voters and other civic groups to visit jails and help ensure people behind bars get the information they need to cast a ballot. That’s more complicated now that visitors are banned from many correctional facilities in the state due to COVID-19. 

But jail doesn’t only affect the civic participation of people inside. One study from MIT researcher Ariel White found short jail stays affect voter turnout long after release, in the following election. She studied the relationship between jail and voting in Harris County, Texas. And she says this relationship is more pronounced for Black defendants. 

“Even a couple of days or a couple of weeks in jail can mean that somebody loses their job. It can mean that someone loses their housing. It can just destabilize people’s lives in ways that can translate into it being logistically hard to go vote,” White said.

White says it may also explain why people might be more skeptical of the government following a negative experience with the criminal justice system.  

Registrars and jails in the greater Richmond area couldn’t provide any data on voter turnout for people who are incarcerated.