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Volunteers Work To Empower Connecticut Inmates To Vote

Absentee Ballots
John Froschauer

Many people in Connecticut jails are eligible to vote, but few do. Advocates say barriers like lack of internet access can make it difficult to register or request mail ballots, but the pandemic poses new challenges for the 2020 Election.

Normally, volunteers could help get out the vote in-person to folks awaiting trial or serving time for misdemeanors. This year Connecticut prisons and jails have been fighting coronavirus and had to limit visitors. So, students at Yale and Quinnipiac Law schools mailed voter packets instead.

“We actually wound up sending mail to 3,000 voters on the front end with information about how to cast their ballot and found that there was already an overwhelmingly positive response,” said Zal Shroff, a fellow at Yale Law. “I think we have at least 100 voters.”

Corrections officials say the number of eligible voters is closer to 2,000. Still, Shroff said his main concern is that voters behind bars rely on mail-in ballots. The U.S. Postal Service warned delays could affect ballot delivery, and Shroff said inmates can’t hand deliver their ballots to drop boxes at city hall.

“This plan has been worked out for other voters in the state, and so we’d like there to be a plan for voters in jail, just like there is a plan for all others in the community,” Shroff said.

He noted voters behind bars aren’t always treated the same as most voters, even though the only people legally banned from voting in Connecticut are those serving time for felonies, or on parole.

“I believe that one of the most overarching reasons for that is the idea that felony disenfranchisement is more of a blanket form of criminal disenfranchisement,” said Ginger Jackson-Gleich, who released a study from the Prison Policy Institute last month that finds many people behind bars do not know they are eligible to vote.

Jackson-Gleich said that’s why voting efforts at jails and prisons are so important. She cited studies of county jails that hosted in-person election drives in Ohio, which reported voter turnout as high as 60 to 70%.

“That stands in stark contrast to counties where there was more of a ballot drop off or form drop off model where there was no in-person contact between volunteers,” she said, adding that it’s troubling that the pandemic is making it harder than ever to help Connecticut offenders elect leaders — especially in a year where racial justice protesters around the globe called for an overhaul of the prison system.

“People who are in jail are the people who know most closely and most personally what the policy decisions made by people in those positions really mean,” Jackson-Gleich said. “I think it’s very important that their voice be a part of the collective decision that we make about who holds those offices.”

Gabe Rosenberg, spokesperson for Connecticut’s Secretary of the State’s office, said this year is the first time corrections workers have been allowed to legally handle an inmate’s ballot.

“Everyone at the SOTS (Secretary of the State) office, and as far as I know at DOC (Department of Corrections), is concerned with making sure that every possible voter has the right to cast their ballot,” Rosenberg said.

Connecticut Department of Corrections officials said they’ve been in contact with Yale Law to help get out the vote.

“We’re committed to working on enhancing these processes moving forward as well, but these are big complicated practices,” said Karen Martucci, director of External Affairs at the DOC. “We have 14 correctional facilities. We have units on quarantine. We have offenders on medical isolation. There’s a lot of complexities involved in normal operations in our facilities, let alone in a pandemic.”

Martucci said for the first time, corrections workers worked to hand deliver ballots from jails and prisons to the drop boxes in voters’ hometowns. She said deliveries continued through noon on Election Day, to be sure eligible voters have ballots in by the 8 p.m. deadline.

Cassandra Basler, a former senior editor at WSHU, came to the station by way of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. When she's not reporting on wealth and poverty, she's writing about food and family.