At the Howard County Detention Center, small groups gathered in the jail’s chapel last month. They weren’t there to pray, but to talk about something else many people consider sacred: their right to vote.
The information sessions led by advocates were part of an unprecedented push by civil rights groups to register eligible Maryland voters who are behind bars. The inmates learned how to sign up to vote and cast absentee ballots from the Jessup jail.
“Many of our loved ones will return home one day,” said Nicole Hanson-Mundell, who directs the Baltimore-based Out for Justice organization and helped register people to vote in the Howard County jail. “They have every right to make a determination as to who represents them.”
Meeting in the chapel allowed people to socially distance amid the coronavirus pandemic, and they also wore masks, said detention center director Jack Kavanagh. Having in-person discussions was valuable, he said.
“Sometimes when you do that face-to-face, you convey better information and you can answer questions that people have,” he said.
In Maryland, people convicted of felonies cannot vote while serving their sentence in prison — but they can if they are locked up awaiting trial or serving time for a misdemeanor. And under a 2016 state law, felons can register as soon as they are released, even if they’re on parole or probation.
The push to improve access to the ballot for those behind bars mirrors national trends. Colorado amended its election code in 2019 to require jails and election officials to coordinate on voter registration and the distribution of ballots to inmates. In March, Cook County Jail in Chicago doubled as a primary election precinct for the first time in its history under a new law passed by Illinois legislators.
And this summer, Washington, D.C., leaders approved a measure opening voting to felons in the district, joining Maine and Vermont in allowing all inmates to vote.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, has challenged advocacy efforts. Many jails have barred visitors in an effort to minimize the spread of the virus, closing a pipeline for voting rights advocates and family members who can help an inmate get access to a ballot.
When Maryland abruptly shifted to voting by mail for its June primary, opting to mail a ballot to every eligible voter across the state, inmates did not receive them unless they were registered to an address at their correctional facility.
Earlier this year, Del. Nick Mosby, a Baltimore Democrat, and Sen. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican, sponsored legislation that would have required every correctional facility in Maryland to distribute absentee voting materials and information to eligible voters who are incarcerated.
“My feeling has always been everyone who has a right to vote ought to vote,” West said. “There’s no reason why we can’t make absentee ballots available to people in jail."
The bill did not pass. But a coalition that includes the ACLU, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters has tried to make sure people in jail have access to voting this fall. Given the over-representation of Black people in the criminal justice system, the issue is one of racial justice, advocates say.
“We didn’t give it much thought ... Part of that, I’m certain, was my lack of familiarity with the law.”— George Hardinger, Carroll County Detention Center warden
Out for Justice pressed the state Board of Elections to agree to distribute packets to eligible inmates that contain materials including voter registration and mail-in ballot applications.
And earlier this month, Monica Cooper of the Maryland Justice Project coordinated a “voting access van tour," driving to every detention facility in the state over three days to remind jail administrators of the rights of those inside.
Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator of the State Board of Elections, said the board has been working with advocates to target categories of voters who have found it more difficult to vote during the pandemic, including inmates and college students.
“This is a group of voters that has unique needs,” she said of inmates. “It’s the only way they can vote.”
Ultimately, the board requested lists of eligible incarcerated voters from state and local correctional facilities, Charlson said. Only some local jails compiled the lists, she said.
Out for Justice was able to secure lists of eligible incarcerated voters in counties including Carroll, Howard and Montgomery.
State inmates were directly mailed a ballot application and instructions specifically written for them this fall, Charlson said. Local facilities were given the applications for the number of inmates they believed were eligible and asked to distribute them, Charlson said. All facilities were also given signs to post reminding eligible inmates to vote.
State Sen. Cory McCray, who sponsored the 2016 law allowing those on parole and probation to vote, was among those who advocated for the state board to take action. McCray said he was glad to see ballot applications distributed, but frustrated that ballots weren’t sent to all eligible inmates in June.
“You’re treating folks as if they’re still not citizens of the state of Maryland,” said McCray, a Baltimore Democrat. “This is the one opportunity where we are all equal. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. You have the same amount of power at that moment. But they stripped that opportunity from folks when they didn’t mail the ballots to everyone.”
Hanson-Mundell emphasized that people who are in jail while awaiting trial “never lost their right to vote.”
But actually being able to cast a ballot is another matter.
“Despite the fact that most persons detained in jail are eligible to vote, very few actually do,” according to a May report by the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy organization. “Jail administrators often lack knowledge about voting laws, and bureaucratic obstacles to establishing a voting process within institutions contribute significantly to limited voter participation.”
For instance, people in jail can’t easily contact their local elections board and many do not know they have a right to vote, according to report.
Maryland Policy & Politics
George Hardinger, the warden of the Carroll County Detention Center, said he believes strongly “that if a person is eligible to vote they should have that opportunity, whether incarcerated or not.”
In the past, though, “we didn’t give it much thought,” Hardinger said. “Part of that, I’m certain, was my lack of familiarity with the law.”
When advocates reached out to him, “I had to educate myself,” he said. But “we were happy to assist.”