To hear state Secretary of State Sam Reed tell it, allowing felons to vote from prison will unleash an array of "fairly difficult" logistical problems. How do you register voters in prison? How can ballots be kept secret given that all outgoing mail from prison is inspected? Consequently, he told SW this morning, his office is requesting a stay of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals order granting voting rights to felons while the state appeals the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Washington already exempts one kind of mail from inspection
He says he hasn't had time to check with Vermont and Maine, the two states that currently allow felon voting, to see how they handle these problems. So SW checked for him. Turns out, these states aren't having any problems at all.
"It's a very simple process," says Wilhelmina Pickard of Vermont's Department of Corrections.In Vermont, Pickard says, voting and voter registration are done through schools that are located in the prisons--and which offer citizenship classes that stress the importance of voting. Instructors help offenders fill out registration cards and mail them in for offenders. Similarly, teachers mail in absentee ballots for offenders, who fill them out at the schools.
Pickard, who oversees the schools, says she doesn't know whether mail is usually inspected by prisons, and that information could not be immediately obtained. But Pickard says she is certain that ballots--which are filled out in the presence of either a corrections officer or an instructor--are kept confidential.
Likewise, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap says felon voting causes no headaches in his state. The NAACP has twice in the past two years conducted voter registration drives in cooperation with prison officials.
And prisons there do not regularly inspect mail, so that isn't an issue. The prisoners write to their hometowns to get ballots, which are then mailed in individually. "We handle (prison ballots) the same way we handle any other absentee ballots," Dunlap says.
Sam Reed knows about the challenges of sorting mail.
Because of the mail inspection that happens at prisons here, felon voting in Washington would seem to present more of a challenge. But Chad Lewis, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, says that prisons already exempt one kind of mail from inspection: communication between offenders and their attorneys. Presumably, corrections officials could do the same for ballots.