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‘Practical Disenfranchisement’: Pre-Trial Inmates Face Ballot Access Issues In La.

Wallis Watkins

On any given day there are an estimated 12,000 people in Louisiana being held in parish jails awaiting trial. For the most part, these are people who haven't been convicted of a crime-- meaning they retain the right to vote.

But while they may be eligible to vote by law, the harsh realities of life behind bars amount to 'practical disenfranchisement.'

On paper, the process to cast a ballot from jail does not seem all that different from what someone on the outside would have to go through-- and that is a problem.

As voting rights activist Bruce Reilly explains, life in jail is different.

"You know, you're living in a place where sometimes it's really hard just to get a phone call to your lawyer... or some really basic human things or legal things," Reilly said.

"I can only imagine the challenge-- not just the sort of logistical challenge-- but the kind of emotional or power-based challenge of asking from your captor the ability to vote."

The United States Supreme Court affirmed pretrial inmates' right to vote in a series of decisions in the 1960s and '70s. But the High Court left it up to the states to decide how to ensure ballot access behind bars.

In Louisiana, inmates who do not have any prior felony convictions can request an absentee ballot by mail, but to get one, they have to include a certification from the sheriff confirming that they are being detained.

Registration is a little trickier-- it is also submitted by mail, but applications are due 30 days before an election.

Reilly, who is the deputy director of Voice of the Experienced, walked me through the timeline.

"If we can imagine the turnaround time to mail to [the Secretary of State], ask [sic] for a form, get it back you're talking about another 1o to 15 days," Reilly said. "So somewhere around October 1, they would have to put it in their head that, 'By November 16, I'm not getting out of here."

Reilly and Rev. Alexis Anderson of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition agreed that new inmates rarely have an accurate idea of how long they the judicial process can take.

"When people come to what is a pretrial detention facility, the focus is on getting out," Anderson said. "Quite frankly, it's not on figuring out how to do things like voting."

Until recently, the average detainee at EBRPP spent 55 days awaiting trial. In that time, they would not have information about their voting rights or how to exercise them.

But that is not always the case. Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Sandra Wilson says her office coordinates with a designated employee of the the sheriff's office to provide ballots to any eligible voters inside the Orleans Justice Center-- if an inmate initiates the request.

"The numbers usually range like 20-- 10 to 20 people," Wilson explained. "But we've had years when we've had like maybe a hundred, but that's usually a presidential election."

At best, just a fraction of the inmates at the 1,400-bed facility cast ballots.

And few jurisdictions approach this issue with the same enthusiasm as Orleans Parish.

Louisiana has 64 parishes, each with its own registrar of voters, its own sheriff and its own jail. That leaves plenty of places for the system to break down.

Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin has not provided guidelines for better reaching incarcerated voters. In his time in office, Ardoin has been more focused on protecting election integrity through a series of policies that have been shown to suppress voter participation. 

"If you want someone who fights the fraud of same-day registration and voting and automatic voter registration, who do you want as Secretary of State?" Ardoin asked a crowd of supporters at a campaign event in October.

They responded in unison, "Kyle!"

"And if you want someone who fights against voting machines in prisons, who do you want?" 

Reilly said he is discouraged by that rhetoric, adding that advocacy groups have far less reach than governoment agencies like the Office of the Secretary of State. 

"In the first half of the 20th century, black people had the right to vote, but I believe it was under 10% of folks were actually voting," Reilly said.

"And so the gap between the right to vote and the ability can be, and often is, bridged by the government itself."

We're talking about voting rights, but Anderson says it's bigger than that. She argues that the practical disenfranchisement of pretrial detainees is a symptom of a system is that is inherently prejudicial. 

"Unfortunately, the minute people put on that orange jumpsuit, there is very little recognition of their humanity, much less their civic engagement," Anderson said.

"And so there is not a lot of interest in creating an environment that is conducive to restoration. It is designed to be just the opposite."

Copyright 2021 WRKF. To see more, visit WRKF.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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