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The jail block 

Voting by mail, from jail

As the candidates and advocates duke it out for seemingly every last vote in this election’s final days, there’s at least one category of voters that isn’t getting courted much. Call them the vote-from-jail block.

click to enlarge News-jailbird_voting0.jpg

In California and most other states, people in jail, as opposed to prisons, are generally allowed to vote. They do so by requesting an absentee ballot.

San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald said there’s no way to track exact numbers of people who vote from jail. “I know I’ve seen several of them come through,” she said.

The law is simple, she said. Any citizen who isn’t in prison or on a felony probation can vote.

At the SLO County Jail, voters get their voting rights but no special privileges, officials say.

“They don’t get any more leeway than anybody else,” said Rob Reed, the Sheriff’s Department’s chief deputy in charge of the custody division.

The law’s clear, Reed said: If an inmate requests an absentee ballot application, the Sheriff’s Department provides them with one. He said they don’t investigate whether the inmate is legally allowed to vote. “That’s up to the Clerk-Recorder’s office,” according to Reed.

Do jail inmates get lobbied for their vote?

Rarely. Reed said the only time an inmate would likely receive political mail is if they’ve provided the county jail as their voter-registration address, and then only if political campaigns access that information for lists. “This just happens to be their home during that time,” he said.

Elsewhere, the question of voting by mail has attracted far more attention.

Advocates from a group called All of Us or None held voter drives in August outside jails in seven counties that have the largest jail populations. The group is a part of a larger organization called Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.

In material from the group’s website, leaders said the effort was organized because many laws and ballot measures that directly affect people will hinge on the outcome of votes this election. And they noted that most of the estimated 82,000 people in state jails haven’t been convicted of crimes—many are simply awaiting court appearances.

It hasn’t always been so clear that people in jail have voting rights.

After conflicting state legal opinions in 2004 and 2005, the ACLU and the All of Us or None group took the matter to court. There, an appeals court ruled that people in jails can vote as long as they aren’t in prison or on probation for a felony.

While the number may be small, the question has become a large one for advocates of voting rights. Advocates say many people who’ve served jail time believe they forfeit their right to vote, but the law’s clear: Their voting rights are restored once they’re out of prison and off probation for a felony.

Among the measures potentially affecting jail inmates this year are three criminal justice measures that affect sentencing laws.

In Contra Costa County, according to a San Jose Mercury News article, the Sheriff’s Department has been working with the county defender’s office this election to make the county’s 1,800 jail inmates aware of their right to vote. Among other things, jail workers have distributed voting literature.

If people in jail haven’t registered yet, it’s too late. The deadline to register was Oct. 20. And the final day to request a mail ballot was Oct. 28.


Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at phowe@newtimesslo.com.

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