Policy Brief

Voting in Jails: Advocacy Strategies to #UnlocktheVote

Every year, hundreds of thousands of eligible incarcerated voters are unable to cast their ballot due to misinformation, institutional bureaucracy and de-prioritization among government officials. This advocacy brief highlights strategies to improve ballot access for incarcerated people who are legally eligible to vote.

Related to: Voting Rights, State Advocacy


Each new election cycle presents an opportunity to improve voter access for persons who are legally eligible to vote among the approximately 549,000 individuals in U.S. jails. The vast majority of persons in jails are eligible to vote because they are not currently serving a sentence for a felony conviction, but are incarcerated pretrial or sentenced to a misdemeanor offense. However, incarcerated voters often experience significant barriers to voting because of misinformation, institutional bureaucracy that varies from one county/city to another, and deprioritization among government officials.

In most states there are underdeveloped practices for people incarcerated in prisons and jails to register or access absentee ballots and/or polling locations. Many incarcerated residents cannot freely communicate via phone or email with election officials to monitor their voter registration or ballot applications. Voter education for justice-impacted citizens is often limited and varies across states and results in too many Americans being left behind each election season.

Recent reforms and a growing civic infrastructure offer opportunities to strengthen voting access and ensure the franchise for every individual, regardless of their incarceration status. This briefing paper provides cases that support expansion of voting access and can inform state and local advocacy efforts.

Click here to download the report.

“My voice should be heard, even from the incarcerated state.”

Frank Baker was detained in Texas’ Harris County Jail but didn’t know he was eligible to vote until the advocacy group, Houston Justice, helped him register. He wishes the jail had a better system in place to inform detainees of their right to vote.

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About the Author

  • Durrel Douglas Headshot

    Durrel Douglas

    Jail-based Voting Initiative Organizer

    Durrel Douglas supports The Sentencing Project's state and local jail-based voting coalitions and initiatives moving the meter on Democracy.

    Read more about Durrel

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