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Preventing Jail-based Voting Disenfranchisement

/ Blog Post

By Dana Paikowsky, 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by the Campaign Legal Center. Dana’s Fellowship is supported by The Arnold & Porter Foundation.

Photo of Dana Paikowsky

Little known fact: most people in jail are eligible to vote. Two-thirds of the jailed population in the United States—approximately half a million people—are incarcerated in pretrial detention, which never impacts voter eligibility. The remaining third—or approximately 250,000 people—are primarily serving sentences for misdemeanor convictions, which also do not affect voter eligibility in the vast majority of circumstances.

Although people in jail largely retain their right to vote, restrictive laws, the realities of incarceration, and lack of infrastructure and resources can make voting impossible. This is known as jail-based disenfranchisement. Jail-based disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts historically marginalized voters, such as people from the Black, Latino, Native American, low-income, homeless, and disabled communities, because these voters are disproportionately likely to be jailed. Also, because our country has a money bail system, many voters are jailed—and then disenfranchised—simply because they cannot afford to pay. Thus, creating a modern-day poll tax.

Jailed voters have been caught up in systems that are disempowering by design. Being arrested and jailed not only deprives a person of their liberty, it isolates them from their community, takes away their personal agency, and puts them at risk of suffering collateral consequences that threaten their housing, custody of children, jobs, health, public benefits, and more. Voting may seem like an insignificant issue in the face of all that, but it provides voters with an opportunity to reclaim their power, connect with their community, and assert for the world that their voice matters.

Voting may seem like an insignificant issue in the face of all that, but it provides voters with an opportunity to reclaim their power, connect with their community, and assert for the world that their voice matters.

Dana Paikowsky /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

At my host organization, the Campaign Legal Center, I use advocacy, outreach, and litigation to combat jail-based disenfranchisement. From working with county officials to put a polling place in a jail, to distributing know-your-rights pamphlets and absentee ballot applications, my Fellowship allows me to advocate for a historically silenced voting population. I have seen firsthand how much it matters to the voters we serve.

This work has also never felt more urgent. With police murders and a global pandemic crowding national headlines, our country has increasingly had to reckon with the harms of racism, mass incarceration, poverty, and inequality. The people who have most directly been impacted by these harms should be able to participate in deciding what comes next. Our job, then, is to ensure jailed voters can cast their ballots and find new ways to elevate and amplify their voices that are too often silenced in our democracy. For me, that work is just beginning.

To learn more about Dana’s Fellowship project, visit her profile.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow