Voting From Prison: Not So Hard After All

Just ask Maine and Vermont.

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 last week, 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.

Reed said he hadn’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 located in the prisons—and which offer citizenship classes that stress the importance of voting. Pickard, who oversees the schools, says she doesn’t know whether mail is usually inspected by prisons, but she’s certain that ballots—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.

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.

Chad Lewis, a spokesperson for the Washington 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.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that as Reed and Attorney General Rob McKenna rushed to announce their intention to appeal last week’s decision to the Supreme Court, the newest Supe is already on record against them.

Sonia Sotomayor was a judge on the 2nd Circuit in 2006 when a similar case came up in New York. There, too, the plaintiffs argued that since felons are disproportionately people of color, denying them the right to vote was effectively discriminatory.

The plaintiffs lost that case, as a majority of 2nd Circuit judges went against them. But Sotomayor dissented and seemed to support the extension of voting rights to all felons, in or out of prison.

Needless to say, conservative outlets like The Washington Times and others saw this as further evidence of Sotomayor’s “racialist judicial activism.” (It’s always “activism” when legal rulings benefit people with no power.)

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