electionlineWeekly’s Mindy Moretti on Democracy at DC Jail


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With tomorrow’s District of Columbia’s primary marking the end of the presidential preference season, my friend and colleague Mindy Moretti visited the D.C. Jail to see how inmates are given the opportunity to cast ballots. She wrote about it for the latest electionlineWeekly:

Despite the chaos around them — loud voices, clanging metal doors, carts being rolled here and there across cement floors, a line of seven voters stood patiently waiting their turn to cast their ballot in Washington, D.C.’s primary.

“John” was first in line to vote and after receiving his ballot he studied it carefully and began to fill it out. Before he had even completed the process, he wanted to know about getting his “I Voted” sticker. Could he have two?

After he completed his ballot and put it in the secrecy envelope, “John” carefully peeled the sticker off the paper backing and proudly slapped it on his chest.

The red, white and blue “I Voted” “Yo vote” sticker was in stark contrast to the orange prison jumpsuit “John” and his fellow voters were wearing.

This week, two teams from the D.C. Board of Elections (DCBOE) headed to the D.C. Jail and to the Correctional Treatment Facility to allow eligible inmates to cast an absentee ballot for D.C.’s June 14 primary.

While not unique to the District of Columbia, D.C. is one of only a small handful of jurisdictions that allows inmates awaiting trial to vote by absentee.

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project has been working for reform of disenfranchisement policies at the national level for more than 15 years and noted that while we’ve seen a good deal of progress in states scaling back restrictive policies on voting by people with felony convictions, access to voting in jails remains a largely unaddressed issue.

“The vast majority of the 700,000 people in local jails are eligible to vote since they are either awaiting trial or serving time on a misdemeanor conviction, but not a felony,” Mauer said. “But there are only a handful of jails in the country where there’s any ongoing effort to make the voting process accessible to this group of people, so the District of Columbia is a leader in this regard.” 

D.C.’s program began in 2004.

“We began this program due largely to the efforts and encouragement of Charles Sullivan of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE),” explained Arlin Budoo, facility management and support services coordinator for DBOE. “Mr. Sullivan would attend the Board’s regular monthly meetings and advocate strongly for the establishment of an onsite absentee voting program for eligible inmates.”

Rokey Suleman who oversaw the DCBOE from 2009-2011 supported the program not only in D.C., but also in other jurisdictions where he worked.

“I coordinated jail visits or voting support in every jurisdiction that I’ve worked. I support these programs because I believe that imprisonment exists to rehabilitate as well as punish. Many of the people we encounter in these situations often feel alienated from politics,” Suleman said from Mongolia where he is currently working as an elections observer. “By encouraging those that are incarcerated but eligible to vote we take a step towards getting them to think beyond themselves and becoming a member of a larger community. There is no better way to participate in your community than through voting.”

Just this week Denver announced that they will be stepping up their efforts to give inmates the opportunity to cast a ballot. The Denver Elections Division will work with the Denver Sheriff’s Department and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, but unlike DC’s program where elections staff visits the jail, the ballots in Denver will be mailed to the inmates.

Back in D.C., Budoo has been participating in these voting days for years and now serves as the BOE’s lead on the project. He works with representatives at the Department of Corrections to schedule dates for the drop-off and pick-up of the voter registration and absentee ballot applications and the actual voting. The board also delivers Voter’s Guides to be distributed to the inmates so that they can know who the candidates on the ballot are prior to the board’s arrival.

On voting day at the D.C. Jail, BOE staff and observers from the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs and The Sentencing Project (including Mauer) arrive around 9:30 a.m.

Once the group clears security they meet with representatives from DOC and review the prepared ballots with a current census of the jail to determine that the inmates who requested absentee ballots are still there and confirm where they are all currently housed. DOC staff are responsible for confirming whether or not inmates are eligible to vote.

Some inmates that requested absentee ballots may be in court on voting day and so a DOC staff member holds their ballot for them until they return and are able to vote.

For the inmates that requested absentee ballots and have been released, their ballots are “cleared” in the system which then makes it possible for the inmate to vote on election day or during early voting.

The BOE staff, observers and DOC staff split up into three teams each taking one floor of the facility. Each of the teams is accompanied by a security guard.

Depending on the situation, sometimes groups of inmates will come to a central location on the floor and in other cases the team will visit the inmates in their assigned wing of the jail with some inmates needing to vote from their cells where they are being held.

On this day, about 70 of the approximately 1,100 inmates housed in D.C. Jail requested absentee ballots and just under 50 ended up casting the ballot.

“I was impressed by the care and concern about the process demonstrated by both elections and corrections officials,” said Mauer, who was observing the process for the first time.

Mauer did express some concerns about the voting hours overlapping with recreation hours, which for about 10 inmates was the case. Budoo said that those ballots were left with the DOC staff coordinator who will work to get the ballots returned.

And of course some inmates change their mind about voting from the time they request their absentee ballot to voting day. That happened with at least one inmate who when approached in his cell to vote told the DOC and BOE staff that “oh hell no” he didn’t want to vote.

Just like any election day, the BOE staff had to be ready for anything and everything and the glare of the media spotlight watching a closely contested race is nothing like the glare of an inmate locked inside his cell watching your every move.

The interaction between BOE staff and voting inmates varied. Some of the inmates said not a word and simply, dutifully cast their ballots. Others had questions about candidates, which of course staff couldn’t answer. Some had questions about the process. Others seemed like they were just eager to speak with someone new.

While most of the voters seemed to carefully review their ballots, one voter entered an office where voting was taking place, declared, for all those who cared to listen, “I’m voting for [name withheld]” and he sat down, filled out the presidential portion of the ballot and didn’t even review the remainder of the ballot.

And some tried to find some humor in the situation like the one inmate who chose to lick his ballot envelope instead of using the glue stick in order to “get some additional nutrition.”

All the inmates who voted were very respectful of the BOE staff and observers.

That being said, being locked inside D.C. Jail and in close proximity to that many inmates could be disconcerting for some.

“Staff members who indicate that they would not be comfortable at the correctional facilities are not forced to participate in the program,” Budoo said. “Fortunately, we have no shortage of Board staff members who are willing to serve as volunteers; we have more individuals here who want to serve than we can actually take.”

The whole process took about three hours, which Budoo said was much better than in the early days when the process would take all day because instead of splitting up into three teams, all the inmates would come to one central location to vote. A process that for a variety of reasons just took a lot longer.

“I think the program is important because it lets the individuals know they are relevant in society and their voices are as important as anyone else’s,” Budoo said. “Even though the resources are limited at the jail, we are always thanked by the inmate population as well as DOC staff for conducting the program at the institution and giving individuals some sort of normalcy to let them know they still have rights.”

Oh and rest assured, “John” did indeed get two “I Voted” stickers.

Editor’s Note: I just wanted to publicly thank the D.C. Board of Elections for allowing me to tag along on this very special voting day. It was an incredible experience to watch men, who may be facing hopeless situations, to seem so hopeful about casting a ballot. This is what democracy looks like. [- Mindy]

As I noted in my recent profile of her, Mindy is someone who loves her city (and ALL the people who live there) more than almost anything – and that’s evident in her reporting on this story. Thanks to her for sharing this story – and kudos to DCBOE for taking the time to ensure that every eligible voter who wants to can cast a ballot.

Stay tuned …

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