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Incarcerated people partner with state officials to encourage voter turnout in prisons

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Incarcerated people partner with state officials to encourage voter turnout in prisons

Sep 25, 2023 | 4:02 am ET
By Evan Popp
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Incarcerated people partner with state officials to encourage voter turnout in prisons
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Image by Maine Morning Star

In Maine, people in prison retain their right to vote, making the state one of just two in the nation — along with Vermont — where that is the case. 

Emphasizing the importance of being able to vote while incarcerated, advocates in and outside prisons have long spearheaded campaigns to spread the word and help those behind bars access this right.

However, there are many more hurdles to voting in prison than casting a ballot on the outside, and turnout among those who are incarcerated lags far behind Maine’s overall engagement in elections, according to a study of the issue. 

In a 2020 paper, researchers with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimated that around 6% of incarcerated people in Maine likely voted in the 2018 election. In that same election, slightly more than 60% of all eligible Mainers voted. 

More recent calculations of incarcerated voter turnout are not available, and neither the Maine Department of Corrections (MDOC) nor the Maine Department of the Secretary of State tracks the number of people in prison who vote in each election. 

‘That’s our voice’ 

Advocates on the inside are trying to increase turnout, and one of the leaders of that campaign is Foster Bates, who is incarcerated in Maine State Prison (MSP) in Warren and heads the institution’s branch of the NAACP. 

Bates, who has been in prison since 2002, said he became involved in voter education work at Maine State Prison in 2004. While the process was slow to get started, Bates said turnout efforts eventually became a regular occurrence prior to an election, with logistical help and support from outside advocates, political leaders and the MDOC. He estimated that over the years, the MSP branch of the NAACP has helped register well over a thousand people to vote.

“We try to make sure that everyone is educated and understands that they have the right to vote while they’re incarcerated,” Bates said in an interview. “Maine and Vermont are the only two states in the union that allow those people who are incarcerated to vote. … Maine and Vermont got that right.” 

Bates said he encourages voting because it represents one of the only ways incarcerated people can exercise power in state and national politics and have a say in who will be making decisions that impact their lives. 

“If you don’t use your vote, then you’re definitely not being heard,” he said. “That’s our voice, especially for those who are incarcerated. If you want to scream, and scream loud, then vote. Because that’s the biggest voice you have.” 

Voting also brings people in prison closer to democracy, Bates said, and assists with rehabilitation. A part of rehabilitation is taking responsibility for one’s actions and exhibiting personal growth, and voting provides people in prison with a sense of responsibility and growth in their lives, he said. 

Bates said the MSP-NAACP’s voter outreach campaigns center around providing information through flyers, posters and bringing in outside speakers for discussions about issues so people can make an informed choice. 

Incarcerated people partner with state officials to encourage voter turnout in prisons
Maine State Prison | Maine Morning Star

While Bates is proud of the work done so far, he acknowledged that challenges remain. For example, he said the MSP-NAACP would like to bring candidates into the prison to talk about their platforms — which it hasn’t been able to do for several election cycles now — and wants to be able to start its voter education drives earlier in the year so the process of educating people doesn’t occur at the last minute. 

Bates said another problem is that while the MSP-NAACP can track the number of absentee ballots requested, it’s difficult to know how many residents actually cast a vote because some people don’t report to the group whether they returned their ballot. Although Bates said it’s possible to anecdotally tell whether turnout is stronger or weaker in a given year, a more definitive tracking system would allow for a better understanding of the effectiveness of advocates’ efforts and could “galvanize other state facilities to look into what we’re doing here.” 

Bringing voting machines into the facility could help in addressing the issue, Bates said, and would allow residents to avoid the multistep process of requesting an absentee ballot, waiting to receive it and sending it back.

But while the Secretary of State’s Office has supported and assisted with voter education drives, communications director Emily Cook said bringing machines into prisons would be challenging because people who are incarcerated are registered to vote in the municipality where they lived before prison and elections in Maine are run at the municipal level. 

“This would single out residents of the facilities as a separate precinct within their town, seriously jeopardizing their right to a secret ballot, especially someone who is the only person from a given municipality at a certain facility,” she said.

In an interview, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said establishing a state-run program to track how many people in prison vote each election would present some of the same confidentiality issues and might not be advisable from a “civil rights and privacy perspective,” as the state doesn’t want incarcerated residents to “feel singled out or targeted.”

Outreach from the outside

Although challenges remain, Bates’ work inside prison to promote voting has received support and assistance from some prominent Maine officials.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) began working with Bates and others to get permission to conduct a voter education drive within prisons in 2004 — the year she also became chapter president of the Portland NAACP. It took nearly three years for then-Gov. John Baldacci’s administration to approve that request, Talbot Ross said.

“It really was a struggle…we had to fight for this,” she explained. 

Since then, Talbot Ross and others have conducted voter outreach and registration inside Maine State Prison and other facilities — including Bolduc Correctional Facility, the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center and the Maine Correctional Center. Those efforts include sharing information on the importance of casting a ballot as well as often bringing a speaker to talk about the history of voting and incarceration. 

“We have always emphasized that for a Maine resident of a correctional facility to register to vote and cast a vote and be civically engaged is not just … on behalf of their individual self,” Talbot Ross said. “They are representing voices of people who have experienced incarceration all across this country who have never had that right to vote. And so it’s really profound that we honor that right and understand the uniqueness of it in this country.” 

In recent years, voting rights proponents have been joined by the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, previously led by Matt Dunlap and now by Bellows, which has helped make the process of registering people to vote easier. Bellows — who participated in outreach efforts prior to the 2022 gubernatorial election at multiple facilities — said ensuring those in prison are aware of their rights is essential.

“Representative democracy depends on participation from everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from,” she said. “The perspectives of residents of our correctional facilities provide important insights into our justice system. But it goes further than that. The bottom line is that democracy is for everyone — no exceptions — and we take that very seriously.” 

Talbot Ross credited the Maine State Prison NAACP chapter, along with the Secretary of State’s Office and the MDOC, for working to educate people in prison about their rights. Still, the speaker said the state can do more to help facilitate voter outreach and education. 

For example, like Bates, Talbot Ross wants resources dedicated to creating a turnout tracking system, which she said would help those doing outreach “analyze all the ways in which [we] need to improve” voter registration efforts. 

Talbot Ross also agreed with Bates that holding town hall meetings in prison facilities that allow residents to directly ask questions of candidates running for office would encourage voter participation and help people make an informed choice. However, she said the MDOC has not allowed such forums to take place.

The MDOC did not respond to a request for comment about its stance on that issue. 

Prison gerrymandering another pressing enfranchisement issue

In conjunction with efforts to enhance voter turnout in prisons, advocates also successfully enacted a bill earlier this year to address the problem of prison gerrymandering. The measure, sponsored by Talbot Ross, stipulates that for the purpose of the population levels that determine political redistricting, an incarcerated person should not be counted as a resident of the municipality where their prison cell is located, but instead as a resident of the place in Maine where they lived prior to incarceration. 

“No longer will there be artificially inflated legislative districts that don’t accurately reflect the community members that the U.S. Census is striving for,” Talbot Ross said, referring to towns like Warren and Windham where prison complexes are located. “For the next round of reapportionment, the legislative district in Warren will have the same population as the legislative district in Washburn. And that’s just fair.”

Will Hayward, advocacy program director with League of Women of Voters of Maine, which backed Talbot Ross’ bill, added that the legislation will ensure incarcerated people are counted in the district where they likely have the most meaningful connections. 

“It strengthens the ties between an incarcerated voter and the community that they come from, that they’re eligible to vote in,” he said. “It counts them there and ensures that they’re factored into that district’s representation. And I think that’s a really powerful and symbolic thing to be able to say you are voting for the legislators who actually represent you.”