By Hannah Critchfield

In the autumn of a normal election year, Zion Lemelle would gather the requisite voter registration forms and absentee ballot requests and don her orange “You Can Vote” t-shirt. Then she would head into a room full of inmates inside the Mecklenburg County jail, North Carolina’s largest.

Of course, this year is different.

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Many correctional facilities – likened to incubators for COVID-19 – have shut their doors to visitors, leaving voting rights groups like You Can Vote worried that in-jail voting will become another casualty of the pandemic.

Historically low turnout in jails

Many people don’t know that people in jail can vote. In North Carolina, individuals who have been convicted of a felony lose their right to the ballot until they have completed probation. But this does not apply to people awaiting trial in jails, who have not yet been convicted of a crime.

In 1874, the Supreme Court affirmed that pre-trial detainees have a right to the ballot, leaving it up to states and local jurisdictions to decide how to do it. Yet few states have a specific plan for ensuring eligible voters who are incarcerated can access this right, and jail voting varies widely by county.

Just 20 known people cast their ballots from jail in North Carolina in the 2018 national election, according to public records requests filed to each county by North Carolina Health News.

Thirteen of those were from the same jail, the Durham County Detention Facility, where You Can Vote has a long time partnership.

There are many barriers to voting while incarcerated – a facility’s mailing restrictions keep a jailed person from receiving a requested absentee ballot, for example, and jail administrators themselves may not be aware of voting laws.

But the biggest roadblock is misinformation.

“A lot of eligible voters have no idea that they have rights,” said Lemelle, organizing director at the nonpartisan organization You Can Vote. “That’s the biggest thing we have to overcome – the misconceptions.”

These barriers work to create “de facto disenfranchisement” for the estimated 482,000 eligible pre-trial voters in jails across the country, according to Dana Paikowsky, an attorney who focuses on jail-based enfranchisement at Campaign Legal Center, a DC-based nonprofit that works to improve voter access nationwide.

We see Zion Lemelle, organizing director for You Can Vote, smiling at the camera wearing an orange "You Can Vote" shirt at the organization's office.
Zion Lemelle, organizing director for You Can Vote, a nonpartisan voting rights organization based in Durham.
Photo credit: Hannah Critchfield

Overcoming barriers

When jail voting happens, it’s often because of ad hoc partnerships between a willing sheriff and outside voting rights groups, which host voter education and registration drives inside.

The groups provide absentee ballot requests and voter registration forms to jailed voters and answer questions about eligibility. Many incarcerated voters who are unsure about their enfranchisement may choose not to vote due to fear of accidentally committing voter fraud, particularly in the wake of recent high-profile prosecutions, such as the case against Hoke County resident Lanisha Bratcher, who voted while on probation.

This year, these coalitions are all the more important.

With outside visitors barred from entry in most facilities because of COVID-19, organizations across the country are working to develop jail voting plans that preserve both the health and voting rights of people inside.

“The status quo in the vast majority of jurisdictions is to do nothing to serve jailed voters,” said Paikowsky. “COVID-19 just makes serving jailed voters harder – because all the problems that existed before are exacerbated by it.”

We see Zion Lemelle, a Black woman in an orange You Can Vote shirt, being trained on how to operate Mecklenburg County Detention Center's computers ahead of a virtual voter registration drive.
Zion Lemelle, organizing director at You Can Vote, prepares to lead a virtual voter rights training inside Mecklenburg County Detention Center in late September 2020.
Photo credit: Garry McFadden

But in some North Carolina jails, such as the Mecklenburg County Detention Center in Charlotte, which boasts an average population of about 1,500 inmates daily, progress is being made.

Democratic Sheriff Garry McFadden opened up the jail to You Can Vote trainings after his election in 2018. This year, he’s made it his personal goal to register at least 300 people incarcerated inside, even as the pandemic rages.

“Their vote also matters,” said McFadden. “Elections have been lost in 300 votes. In local elections, it could be the deciding factor.”

Like much of the country during COVID-19 shutdowns, the county jail has relied on virtual technology to communicate the message of eligibility to inmates.

McFadden has cleared an unused room in the detention center and allowed Lemelle and other You Can Vote members to call in to each of its 39 units through video chats facilitated by guards.

“They take this big flat-screen TV, and we just connect to Zoom,” said Lemelle. “And they go to each unit. Then they literally have to unplug, go to the next unit, replug, get connected again, and then I do my spiel again.

“I have really perfected it,” she added with a laugh.

After the speech, according to Lemelle, inmates can approach the screen and ask questions.

“You can always tell who is a former felon by their body language, and because it’s always something that they’re either very private about, or you can just tell that their spirit is broken,” said Lemelle. “But being able to dig deeper and have those conversations — there are people who haven’t been on probation for 20 years.

“When I tell them they can vote — I’ve had people cry,” she said.

These trainings were held throughout September. McFadden said he’d welcome more in October.

“Voting does a lot for humanity, and it does a lot for self-esteem,” he said. “When people talk about true criminal justice rehabilitation, it starts with us. And when I say ‘us,’ I mean the sheriffs. Anything I can do to help leverage that, I will.”

Studies have shown that civic engagement has a positive impact on health, and is considered a social determinant of health. Voter participation specifically is associated with better self-reported health, whereas individuals who do not vote report poorer health in later years.

We see a sign that reads, "Tu Voz Importa," posted on the grass along a road in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 13.
A You Can Vote sign posted in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 13.
Photo credit: Hannah Critchfield

Ninety-nine counties, thousands of potential voters

Challenges remain in the rest of North Carolina’s 99 jails.

In facilities that lack video technology, Fellman said this may mean having detention guards hold the trainings for inmates instead.

“Having the only people who have access to folks in detention be somebody in a power position over them is hard, let’s just say that,” said Kate Fellman, executive director of the Durham-based You Can Vote. “We have no idea what they’re going to say, and we have no idea how it’ll be received from an authority figure who voters may or may not trust.”

Six other jails – including those in the four most populous counties – have told You Can Vote they’re interested in facilitating COVID-friendly voter trainings. They’re working on nailing down a plan with each, according to Fellman.

The group is waiting to hear back from other county jail leaders after beginning outreach in August.

Jailed voters must depend on sheriffs.

“It seems like there’s nothing we can do about it unless we have a good sheriff that’s willing to make his staff work with us,” said Fellman. “There are sheriffs that definitely want to do the right thing, but it’s just a really hard time. The onus should not be on all of them when the state is completely lacking a plan as well. They’re not supported in any way.”

Nevertheless, in Mecklenburg’s jail, 60 incarcerated people have sent in absentee ballots so far, according to McFadden.

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Critchfield is NC Health News' Report for America corps member. Report for America is a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered...