‘We’re in a moment’: Is it time to expand voting rights for incarcerated Pennsylvanians?
After spending nine years behind bars on a felony charge, one thought was going through Jessie Tate’s mind: His life was over.
“One of the things I didn’t have coming out of prison was hope,” Tate said at a panel regarding incarcerated voters rights on Tuesday. “With no way to participate in civil duties or get a job, prisoners end up going back to what they know.”
Tate also thought that he couldn’t vote. For 18 years after his incarceration, he watched his neighbors, friends and family flock to the polls to exercise influence over the political landscape of their home.
In 2012, he discovered through a grassroots campaign by the Obama campaign that he actually could. Tate proudly cast his ballot for the first time since his incarceration in the 2012 presidential election.
“When I was told I could vote, it was an amazing feeling,” Tate said. “It felt so good. They gave you an ‘I voted’ sticker, and I was walking around with that sticker on all day long.”
Thousands of Pennsylvanians will spend Nov. 8 behind bars with no easy access to a ballot box. Thousands more will let the day pass by while falsely believing that they are disenfranchised, or stripped of the right to vote, just like Tate did.
Earlier this month, Reps. Rick Krajewski and Rep. Christopher Rabb, both Philadelphia Democrats, began seeking support for legislation that would require the Department of State to develop educational programming surrounding civic education and voting for people in prisons, encode prisoners’ right to absentee ballots and give felons the right to vote.
In county and state institutions, voting access and education varies
Incarcerated people who were convicted of any crime not considered a felony have the right to vote. But they, but incarcerated individuals don’t have access to voting machines because of strict security in county jails and state correctional institutions.
Nationally, two out of every three people in U.S. jails aren’t convicted yet and are being held awaiting trial, according to research by the Prison Policy Initiative, an organization that advocates for campaigns to improve the condition of incarcerated individuals.
While the numbers fluctuate, a portion of “innocent until proven guilty” Americans are denied easy access to the polls.
The state Department of Corrections has detailed information on how incarcerated individuals can vote — but many prisoners don’t have internet access.
“The DOC provides eligible inmates with the opportunity to vote via a mail-in ballot,” the agency’s spokesperson, Maria Bivens, told the Capital-Star. “Those ballots are received to the institutions as Business Transactional mail and are handled by the facility business office.”
Theoretically, prisoners could vote in-person, but that would require a polling machine inside of an institution. In Pa.’s severely understaffed county jails, the logistics of obtaining enough prison guards on election day could prove near-impossible for an already taxed prison system. It’s also impossible because of voter precincts.
“It’s not a horrible idea, it’s just not a practical idea. Everyone thinks of voting at national and state levels, not considering county and municipality levels,” Dauphin County Elections Director Jerry Feaser told the Capital-Star. “We don’t register inmates out of the prison address, therefore there could be multiple different ballot styles because they’re specific to a precinct.”
Dauphin County Prison sits in Swatara Township, 2nd precinct. Feaser said that in the latest election, he received mail-in ballots from York, Berks, Adams and Lancaster county. Providing ballot styles from different counties in one voting machine is simply not possible, Feaser said.
According to a study published in 2021 by the PENNfranchise Project, an organization that works to train returning citizens on civic engagement, only 52 out of 25,000 people incarcerated in Pa. county jails requested a mail-in ballot in 2020.
Krajewski called the stat “embarrassing.”
“That’s a fraction of a percent that’s using their right to vote,” he told the Capital-Star. “There’s very little coordination [between the state and DOC] on this.”
Bivens said that the Corrections Department is currently collaborating with the Department of State to develop a video to play on the inmate channel that would occasionally remind incarcerated people about their voting rights.
In September 2022, former Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order that created “Vote Registration Distribution Agencies,” of which the Corrections Department is now designated.
Since the order, registration forms are now available at Parole Field Offices, Community Corrections Centers and are available to reentrants, according to Bivens. She also noted that the Department of State provided signage for facilities to advertise registration forms.
“We as a department are doing our part to close the gap of 1.7 million unregistered voters and ensure our residents and reentrants know that they have the right to have their voices heard,” Bivens added.
The County View
The larger problem is county jails. The DOC does not operate or have authority over them, and there is no uniform system within the jails to provide voting information, although by law they are required to provide voting opportunities to eligible voters.
In Dauphin County, jail officials work to ensure mail-in voting information is provided early. It’s a policy they’ve had since 2020.
“Each year we provide them [inmates] with a memo and calendar stating when the last day to register to vote is, when the last day to apply for an absentee ballot is, and we provide them with all the necessary forms,” Feaser said. “We set earlier deadlines just to make sure that we get the bulk of them done in advance.”
Feaser provided a letter and documents that were sent to inmates ahead of the May primaries to the Capital-Star. Included were a list of candidates, voter registration in English and Spanish, an absentee ballot application and national voter registration for inmates who reside in another state. The package also included comprehensive details on which inmates were eligible to vote and key dates throughout the election process.
The final document informs prisoners that there is “personal delivery of items” between the jail and the elections officers to “reduce any chance of items being lost in the mail.”
It takes a high level of cooperation between the jail and the board of elections. Either Feaser or his deputy coordinates with a prison official that’s appointed by the warden. Feaser called it “a solid chain of custody.”
Official election mail is also prioritized by jail officials, since the actual absentee ballots go through the U.S. mail. The prison mail system understands that if mail has an official election mail insignia on it, it can be pushed through without the typical searches that other mail undergoes, Feaser said.
However, Dauphin County is just one of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. The PENNfranchise Project included in their study an analysis of the 46 county jails across the state, classifying their overall election policies as either “detailed,” “vague” or “none.” Dauphin was included in the “vague” category, as were 12 others. Only seven counties were “detailed.”
Twenty-six counties had no written policy, although they still must, by law, provide voting information to inmates.
Even when election paperwork is provided, it’s not always used. Feaser said that in the most recent elections, Dauphin County only got 20 ballots from the county jail, and while many ballots are diverted to separate counties, it’s still an underwhelming number.
“Hope:” The motivating factor for inmates to vote
In institutions where there is education surrounding how to vote, why prisoners should vote is not often addressed.
“You have to explain to individuals why their votes are so important,” Tate said. “People think their vote isn’t going to make a difference, but if 10,000 people are thinking like that, that’s 10,000 people not voting for these elected officials making laws that affect minorities.”
According to research by the Sentencing Project, Black Americans comprise nearly half of all persons confined to prison in Pennsylvania. When prisoners vote, it makes candidates answer to a more diverse constituency, and not just legislative candidates, said Leigh Owens, the executive director of the PennFranchise Project, during a May 23 panel discussion at the state Capitol.
“People don’t know that judges and district attorneys get voted in and out as well,” Owens said.
Tate echoed his sentiment, noting that during his time in prison he was upset to discover that individuals were serving a lesser sentence for what he considered more egregious crimes and that judges whom he believed were biased could be voted out. Tate also noted racial disparities in prison.
“This goes back to prison gerrymandering, which disproportionately impacted Black and brown incarcerated people,” Krajewski said. “This could be a very powerful racial justice initiative.”
Voting can also help incarcerated individuals gain a sense of hope, which Tate said he had so little of stepping out of prison.
“For me, voting kind of restores some powers,” Tate said. “When you realize that you can look at voting records in the House or Senate and if you see something that gives minorities a disadvantage, we could vote them out.”
Inmates with a felony conviction cannot vote while incarcerated. The moment they leave prison, their voting rights come back, but that’s often unclear.
In Tate’s experience the option to register to vote was lost somewhere in paperwork and list of things to do. While he acknowledges that he can be blamed for not inquiring about his voting rights, Tate said starting the conversation while inmates are still incarcerated is vital.
“When individuals get out of jail, they have a laundry list of things to do, especially on parole,” Tate said. “If you start in prison and talk about voting rights, you’ll get individuals that come out with a different mindset and start voting.”
Included in Krajewski’s legislation is a proposal to codify the right of incarcerated individuals to vote by absentee ballot.
“The more we can point to the law and the foundation of our sentencing code to say this is a right that every incarcerated person deserves to have, the easier it is to defend it,” Krajewski said. “Then we have some defense in court when something like this will inevitably be challenged.”
The case for a constituency that includes felons
The second part of the proposal would allow all incarcerated individuals, including felons, to vote.
“I believe we’re in a moment in [Pennsylvania]. and in the country where we’re realizing that retribution is not always the best path to justice,” Krajewski said. “It’s compassionate rehabilitation, and what it means to enfranchise people and give them the ability to vote is part of that conversation.”
Krajewski said allowing felons to vote in the commonwealth would be a “home run,” but that he’s willing to engage in conversation on his plan.
“I want to work to make this a priority, whether it’s this session or the next,” he said. “It’s going to take some work to make this happen.”
There are few examples nationally of laws allowing all incarcerated individuals to vote —
Currently, only Maine, Vermont, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico allow felons to vote while they are serving their sentences. Since most convicted felons are housed in state correctional facilities, the process would be similar to what the Pennsylvania Corrections Department currently has in place for inmates.
Passing the bill will take hard work and time, with a slim majority favoring the Democrats in the house and many Republicans opposed.
Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson of state House Republicans, said that inmate voting access was “nowhere near” the top of a list of identified problems noted in a House Republican review of Pa.’s election laws.
“Pennsylvania’s House Democrats, who have also proposed paying incarcerated Pennsylvanians $21 per hour for prison work, continue to push an extreme agenda focused more on helping people incarcerated for breaking Pennsylvania’s laws than on people who want to have safe communities free of crime and violence” Gottesman said. “This House Democrat thought experiment is another extreme proposal that does nothing to help solve real problems being faced by law-abiding Pennsylvanians.”
If the bill makes it through the House, it would face a hurdle in the Republican-controlled state . Senate, but Krajewski is both hopeful and said he remains open to conversation.