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By Hannah Critchfield

As the election looms next week, record-breaking numbers of voters have already cast their ballots in the battleground state of North Carolina.

One in three North Carolinians has already voted. Of these approximately 4 million voters, according to state data, and as of Thursday evening, more than 881,000 of them cast absentee ballots.

How many of those were people in jail?

Unbeknownst to many, people who are incarcerated and retain their ability to vote have a constitutional right to the ballot.

People who have been convicted of a felony temporarily lose their right to vote in North Carolina until they have completed their probation, although some will be able to vote after an injunction issued in September in Wake County Superior Court. But this does not apply to people in jail who are awaiting trial and have no prior felony conviction.

An estimated two-thirds of the 746,000 people held in local jails nationwide are eligible to vote.

Voting in jail remains sparse in most parts of the country, and North Carolina is no exception.

In the 2018 national election, just 20 known people cast their ballots while incarcerated in one of the state’s nearly 100 county jails, North Carolina Health News previously reported.

A guard’s lack of knowledge about inmates’ right to the ballot, as well as facility mailing restrictions that prevent ballots from arriving, the absence of a plan to facilitate the voting process, and jailed voters’ own unawareness about their eligibility, can lead to de facto voter suppression, according to Dana Paikowsky, an attorney who focuses on jail-based disenfranchisement at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center.

The transience of jail residents also makes voting complicated. Many inmates cycle in and out of jail quickly, and studies have shown a lack of stable residency decreases voter turnout.

The novel coronavirus brought added challenges to many voting rights groups’ plans to expand jail voting in the state ahead of the 2020 national election.

Some sheriffs, particularly those with past partnerships with these local organizations, have remained committed to facilitating voter access within their jails.

North Carolina Health News contacted all 100 county sheriff’s offices about how many people have voted in their jail. Seven of the respondents are tracking the number of inmates who have registered while incarcerated.

An open question

The deadline to register to vote in North Carolina was Oct. 9.

While most voters can still participate in same day registration at an early voting or election day polling site, eligible incarcerated voters who failed to register before this date and remain in jail through the election are out of luck. If they had not registered and were outside, they could still participate via same-day registration at an early voting site or on election day.

There is no special provision for people who have not registered and wind up in jail after this date, according to Patrick Gannon, spokesperson for the N.C. State Board of Elections. That’s in sharp contrast to those made for individuals living in other congregate facilities with restricted movement, such as nursing homes.

Looking at the number of people who registered in jails prior to the Oct. 9 deadline is thus the best way to assess how many incarcerated people in North Carolina may cast their ballots in this election.

Most jails don’t track the number of ballots cast from their facility, or the number of inmates who requested an absentee ballot before the deadline last Tuesday.

There’s no guarantee that a person who is registered will vote — but it means they have the option to send in a mail-in ballot and be sure it’s postmarked before close of business on Nov. 3.

Expanding opportunities

In Guilford County Jail, 110 inmates have registered to vote, according to Sheriff Danny H. Rogers. Despite pandemic visitation restrictions, the jail is working with You Can Vote, a local nonpartisan organization, to schedule times for outside volunteers to enter the two county lockups and serve as witnesses for inmates seeking to cast their absentee ballots.

Ahead of these visits, detention staff are handing out candidate booklets so incarcerated voters can learn about each candidate, according to Rogers.

In Forsyth County Jail, 90 voter registration forms “were passed out,” according to LaShanda Millner-Murphy, public relations manager with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office. She did not disclose how many people registered.

The jail partnered with Interfaith Winston-Salem, which provided voter registration forms, ballot request forms, and pre-stamped envelopes addressed to the Forsyth County Board of Election. You Can Vote also provided the jail with instructional guides on how to complete these forms, according to Millner-Murphy, which were posted throughout the facility.

Sixty-three people registered in the Durham County Detention Center, which also partners with You Can Vote, as did 54 people in Buncombe County Detention Center, which worked with Democracy NC to distribute voter forms.

In Catawba County Detention Center, nine inmates have registered and 13 have requested absentee ballots, according to Major Billy Boston of the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office. He said he worked with the county’s elections director to draft and send detailed instructions on voting to all inmates and posted this information in housing units.

Sheriff Garry McFadden of Mecklenburg County Detention Center, North Carolina’s largest jail, said 175 people inside have registered to vote.

He added that 147 of them had sent in absentee ballots as of Oct. 15. McFadden did not explain how the jail was tracking ballots cast.

Two inmates requested and sent absentee ballots from Pitt County Detention Center, which made forms available during each detention officer shift in case an individual requested them, according to Lee Darnell, spokesperson for the county sheriff’s office. The office does not track registrations.

One incarcerated person requested an absentee ballot in Moore County Detention Center, where a “designated detention officer” assists inmates who have requested to vote but conducts no formal voter education training. Another requested a ballot in Haywood County Detention Center, according to Sheriff Greg Christopher, and staff assisted him with the request.

Many other jails did not respond to requests for comment. Several noted they do not have, and have never had, a specific plan in place to facilitate in jail voting.

“However; absentee ballots are available to inmates upon request,” Lieutenant Kevin Suthard, spokesperson for the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office, wrote in an emailed statement.

“We do not have a plan in place to facilitate in jail voting,” responded Sheriff Kevin L. Auten of Rowan County. “We have not done this in the past so there is no comparison for this current pandemic.”

Voting a predictor of health 

Research has shown civic engagement can have a positive impact on health. People who do not vote report poorer health later in life; in contrast, active voter participation is associated with better self-reported health.

In total, approximately 501 known people in jails have registered to vote in North Carolina this election cycle. At least some of the incarcerated jail population who were already registered have requested absentee ballots.

Exactly how many will vote remains to be seen.

The public can request information on the number of people who voted from each jail’s address from the Board of Elections after all votes are tallied.

Clarification: This article has been clarified to include information about a September ruling that some people on probation will be able vote after serving their sentences on a felony conviction, if that person’s only barrier to their penalties being discharged is an inability to pay fines and fees.

Hannah Critchfield

Critchfield is NC Health News' Report for America corps member. Report for America is a national service program that places talented emerging journalists...