In Vermont, incarcerated people never lose the right to vote. That doesn’t mean that it’s simple to vote inside of a correctional facility.
Riley Board Burlington Free Press
Jason Anderson wanted to vote for Christine Hallquist in 2018. In her campaign for governor, she made comments about one of the issues that mattered most to him: problems with incarceration in Vermont.
Anderson never got to vote for Hallquist, who ultimately lost to Gov. Phil Scott. As an inmate in the Vermont Department of Corrections, Anderson says he was waiting for prison staff to share a sign up sheet where inmates could write down their names to learn more about voting, but he never saw one.
“She said she wanted to fix things on our end,” Anderson said of Hallquist in a letter to the Free Press. “And to us, that would of (sic) been a blessing.”
Anderson, like every Vermont incarcerated felon, retains the right to vote. That means the Vermont Department of Corrections “encourages inmates to vote” and provides informational resources in facilities, while also inviting volunteer organizations to provide nonpartisan resources. Inmates vote by absentee ballot at their last address in Vermont, and not at the address of the facility, so they must retain a “last voluntary address” to vote.
Voting does occur inside Vermont correctional facilities, but the complications of incarceration make it challenging for some inmates. This year, COVID-19 is making that process even more difficult.
Where can incarcerated people vote?
In the U.S. only two states — Vermont and Maine — and the District of Columbia allow currently-incarcerated felons to vote in elections. Many other states restore the right to vote to felons upon release, while others disenfranchise felons permanently. Floridians voted overwhelmingly in 2018 to restore voting rights to released felons, who continue to receive pushback from conservative lawmakers in the state.
Vermont and Maine have never disenfranchised incarcerated voters, and D.C. restored the right for incarcerated felons in July of this year. These three locations have some of the smallest incarcerated populations and lowest rates of incarceration in the country.
Vermont has the second lowest incarceration rate, above only D.C., and has the smallest incarcerated population of any state; the most recent statistics, reported in July by the Department of Corrections, put that number at 1,393.
How it works
In Vermont, all incarcerated citizens who are residents of the state can vote, with the exception of those charged with a crime related to election fraud. They must request a mail-in ballot from the town clerk of the town of their last address, and mail it back to that clerk.
This includes Vermont inmates who are housed out of state, like those at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility facility in Mississippi.
In state and out, inmates cannot access the internet and must work with facility staff or their caseworkers to register to vote. This involves the use of a valid photo ID and a document with proof of address, like a bill or government document, which inmates may have to have mailed to the facility.
Department of Corrections spokesperson Rachel Feldman says that there is no set curriculum for what facilities must provide to inmates, but volunteer services coordinators in prisons will post information and work with outside volunteers who help register inmates to vote. This includes posting sign up sheets in common areas.
Jim Condos, the Vermont Secretary of State, said that because nothing on a ballot indicates whether a voter is incarcerated, and because inmates don’t vote with the facility as an address, there is no way of knowing how many Vermont inmates vote. Their ballots get mixed in with all of the rest in their hometowns.
However, reports by the Marshall Project, a criminal justice reporting nonprofit, suggest that the number is low, due to low literacy rates among incarcerated populations and a lack of access to information about candidates and elections.
Pandemic prevents volunteers from visiting prisons to help with voting
This year, because of COVID-19 and public health concerns, Condos is coordinating an effort to send every registered voter in the state a mail-in ballot.
Voter registration forms allow for two addresses: the residential address that indicates where one is voting, and a mailing address. Inmates will need to fill out those two pieces of information soon, Condos said, because his team will be finalizing the list of mailing addresses in late August or early September in preparation for sending all those ballots.
Groups like the League of Women Voters and Disability Rights Vermont volunteer in correctional facilities to register inmates to vote.
The League has been conducting voter registration drives inside facilities since 2018 —the drives bring volunteers into correctional facilities, where they set up tables in common areas and register inmates. This election season, the League conducted two drives but had to cancel additional events once prisons were closed to visitors because of the virus.
The League pivoted, and is now in the process of creating an informational video about how to register and request a ballot from prison. They’re hoping to finish the video and distribute it to facilities in time for the November election.
Disability Rights Vermont has been assisting disabled inmates with voting since 2004. Tina Hagan, who oversees inmate outreach at Disability Rights, says that their process is fairly hands-on: The organization assists disabled inmates with voting education, registration and the requesting of absentee ballots, and they follow up with town clerks to make sure that ballots have been received.
Hagan says that she has registered hundreds of inmates to vote during her time in the program. This year, they’ll be sending information by mail and coordinating to post sign up sheets in facilities so that inmates can sign up for more information.
Disability Rights is also allowed to distribute a nonpartisan voting guide to every correctional facility in the state. They reach out to all candidates and allow them to make statements addressing disabled Vermonters for the guide.
Hurdles in an inmate’s path to voting
A survey conducted this spring by The Marshall Project and Slate explored the politics of inmates nationwide, the vast majority of whom are unable to vote.
The survey found that Donald Trump came out on top as the presidential candidate most supported by inmates, and found that the more time an individual spends in prison, the more likely they are to care about voting.
For Jason Anderson, Joe Biden is his pick this year because he believes that Trump is “leading the country down a path of destruction”.
But Anderson isn’t sure he’ll be able to cast a vote. In 2018, when he desperately wanted to vote in the Vermont gubernatorial election, Anderson says he submitted around 20 grievances to the facility asking for help voting but never received a response. Prison records show that Anderson submitted 21 grievances that year, but the DOC would not speak to whether they were addressed because the specifics of grievances are confidential.
Anderson says that he submitted another grievance recently, which has also gone unanswered. He also said that sign up sheets, which can be posted by facility staff or by volunteer organizations, frequently get thrown away.
Tina Hagan at Disability Rights Vermont said that sometimes their sign up sheets disappear before being returned, but she does not know why. Feldman couldn’t speak to specific incidents of sign up sheets disappearing.
Anderson also said that he has not been given any method to research candidates. According to Feldman, local newspapers are delivered to facilities and inmates can watch local and national television news. Additionally, correctional facilities have tablets where inmates can access certain approved news sites. According to the DOC website, accessing media on the tablet comes at a cost — it sets inmates back $9.99 a month to access a “newsfeed.”
Feldman says that the DOC does what it can to allow inmates to be informed voters, but the department must walk the line of providing only non-partisan materials.
This month Anderson says he put his name on another a sign up sheet and is awaiting information about registering to vote in time for the November election.
“I would like to vote for someone who will change the way that things are in the prison system,” Anderson said. “Prisoners are a multi-billion dollar industry, and that is wrong.”