Voting from jail – if not convicted, it’s a right

not a polling place

If you are arrested today and jailed until after Nov. 6, Election Day, you will not be allowed to vote. That’s despite being legally eligible to do so.

“If you have not been convicted and are in jail, you have not lost the right to vote,” Amy Rose, the legal director of the ACLU of Nevada, says.

To lose the right to vote in Nevada, people must be convicted of certain felonies. Serving time for misdemeanors, sitting in jail without a conviction, or simply being unable to make bail are not grounds for depriving someone of the vote.

Yet, the options for voting while incarcerated are limited. Both Rose and Leslie Turner, an organizer with PLAN Action’s Mass Liberation Project, see lack of access for eligible voters as a form of voter disenfranchisement.

“Why are we taking away people’s right to vote?” Turner asks. “Just because you’re accused and sit in jail because you can’t afford bail doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong.”

It has been estimated that at any given time, between 500 and 1,000 people are incarcerated in Southern Nevada who can’t afford bail.

The scope of how many eligible voters are in jail is “difficult for us to know as we do not ask about voter eligibility,” says Officer Jacinto Rivera, a spokesman with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

Facilities across Clark County have recently begun looking into voting access. This upcoming election is the second time the Clark County Detention Center has offered absentee ballots for eligible voters in jail. At the time of publication, the detention center hadn’t provided the number of requests it received, but Turner estimates it was about 50. 

The Henderson Detention Center had 9 requests for absentee ballot. The city of Las Vegas didn’t receive any.

Not all facilities inform inmates of their voting options. At the Clark County Detention Center, fliers were posted throughout the facility reminding people to request an absentee ballot — the deadline was Oct. 30.

The city of Las Vegas Jail doesn’t directly inform inmates of their voting options, and says it’s the individual’s responsibility to request an absentee ballot “just as it is the responsibility of the individual to register to vote.”

“They have the same options as anyone else, early voting, absentee ballot or voting on election day,” says Jace Radke, a spokesman with the City of Las Vegas. “If they have not taken advantage of either of the first two, and are not released prior to the close of polling on election day, they would not be able to vote. Similarly if someone is admitted into the hospital and they are there over election day they would not be able to vote.”

Nevada law allows people to request an emergency ballot after the absentee ballot deadline if they’ve become sick and are hospitalized.

Rose says absentee ballots aren’t enough and more should be done. For one, the deadline to request for absentee ballots is a week before the election. “There are emergency provisions but that has to do with a medical reason,” she adds.

Even if the election department and jails worked together to expand emergency voting provisions, Rose says there are still a lot of complications.

If an inmate requests, and submits, an absentee ballot but then is released, Rose says it’s unclear what happens to the absentee ballot. Also, an absentee ballot wouldn’t work if a person was arrested, and jailed, on Election Day.

PLAN Action’s Mass Liberation Project hopes more can be done. “The goal is to create a permanent voter site within the detention center to help eligible voters,” Turner says.

But Turner points to Cook County, Illinois as an example worth implementing in Nevada because it not only gave inmates a place to vote but brought people into the jail to register eligible voters.

Rivera says that’s not something being considered at the Clark County Detention Center.

Lt. Kirk Moore, a spokesman with Henderson Police Department, says the Henderson Detention Center is open to ideas.

“It is our intention to provide inmates that are eligible to vote with every opportunity to exercise their legal right to do so,” he said in a statement to Nevada Current. “We are currently researching best practices to ensure that we adopt policy and implement procedures that reflect state law and allow inmates to exercise their voting rights.”

The Clark County Election Department wasn’t available to comment at the time of publication, but Turner hopes to work with them to see what can be done. “There needs to be a broader conversation in the election department about expanding voter access,” she says.

Nationally, the conversation about voter disenfranchisement and suppression has been focused on voter roll purges and voter identification laws that more often than not target people of color. One example — of countless efforts —  is the voter identification law in North Carolina, that was eventually struck down after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it would “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Across the country, states have started addressing ways to restore voting rights to a specific pocket of disenfranchised voters: felons who’ve served their time. On Nov. 6, Florida voters will decide a ballot initiative that would restore voting rights to people convicted of most felonies — it excludes those convicted of murder and sex offender-related offenses.

Nevada has been working to clear away some of the hurdles people convicted of felonies face when trying to reclaim their rights to vote.

But again, those sitting in jail without a conviction or serving time for a misdemeanor already have a right to vote.

The issue has gone to court elsewhere in the country. Former inmates, who were eligible to vote in the 2016 election but were disenfranchised when denied access to the ballot including requests for absentee ballots, filed a lawsuit against Allen County Jail in Indiana. There’s yet to be ruling in the suit. 

Both Turner and Rose say the first step in Nevada is to work with facilities in collaboration to see if they could expand access. Turner adds they are looking at legislation to address this issue — Illinois recently passed legislation that requires jails to facilitate opportunities for detainees to vote.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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