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What we learned about voting in Pennsylvania jails from a new report

Each county runs things differently, creating a patchwork of policies across the state.

A worker prepares Philadelphia mail ballots for counting in the 2020 general election.
A worker prepares Philadelphia mail ballots for counting in the 2020 general election.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Most inmates in Pennsylvania jails are allowed to vote, but they do so at low rates and a new report finds that the ease of casting a ballot varies widely by county.

State law prohibits people from voting while incarcerated for a felony conviction. But county jails hold people before and during trial, and inmates there are generally allowed to vote if otherwise eligible.

A patchwork of county policies across the state means some inmates have proactive help from jail administrators, while others receive little if any information, according to the report released Wednesday. It was issued by All Voting Is Local, a voting-rights initiative of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in partnership with the good-government groups Common Cause Pennsylvania and Committee of Seventy.

The groups requested information from 61 county jails and heard back from 46. Among the findings:

  1. Seven counties, including Philadelphia, Delaware, and Allegheny, had detailed written policies that included listing key dates and documents needed to vote

  2. 13 counties, including Chester and Montgomery, had vague policies with little guidance

  3. 26 had no written policy

“Needs improvement,” said Aerion Abney, Pennsylvania director of special projects for All Voting Is Local. He described “a wide spectrum, from jails that have basically nothing all the way to jails that have good policies and procedures.”

Here are some lessons from the report and interviews with voting-rights advocates and others:

Both policy and implementation matter

If a county has good policies in a handbook but they’re never implemented, they’re pointless.

“You have jails with the actual policies in place, and there’s a gap between the policy and actual implementation,” said Khalif Ali, head of Common Cause Pennsylvania. “If you simply say, ‘Oh, yeah, you guys can vote,’ and there’s nothing else, you’re essentially telling them: ‘Figure it out.’”

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On the other hand, jails that help people vote without writing it into official policy leave things up to individual jail administrators.

“We want it institutionalized so if there’s turnover in staff, the next person knows: This is how we do it,” Abney said.

Being proactive makes a difference

In the outside world, even small obstacles can deter people from voting.

Inside a jail, the barriers are even higher. For example, information is tightly controlled, and there’s virtually no interaction with campaigns, parties, and other groups that encourage voter turnout.

Many people, including inmates themselves, have no idea people can vote in county jail. And those who do often don’t have the freedom to just hop online to learn more, check their registration status, and request a ballot. That’s why jail administrators need to be proactive in helping inmates, Ali said.

“They don’t have the resources or the capability,” Ali said.

In the Allegheny County jail, administrators used to put up physical signs about voting, “and it was up to you as an individual to read that,” said Jack Pischke, the jail’s inmate program administrator.

Now, Pischke sends digital memos that inmates see when they log in to their tablets to access magazines, games, text messages, and other programming. That’s a lot more efficient and effective, he said.

It takes time and effort to help inmates vote

Helping Allegheny County jail inmates vote isn’t just a matter of sending out some emails, Pischke said.

It begins with collecting data from inmates when they’re first being processed, when they’re asked on intake forms whether they’re registered to vote. That’s later used to help identify which inmates to talk to during election season.

When it’s time to help people vote, Pischke brings paper registration forms and mail ballot applications to the county elections office once a week.

“It’s worked out well where they can vet them right away and see if they’re actually a registered voter and, if not, they’ll let me know. Then I can make sure they do fill out the correct applications,” Pischke said.

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As Election Day nears, Pischke arranges for elections officials to bring all the mail ballots and set up in the visiting room. Administrators bring inmates to vote, with elections officials collecting the ballots after.

It’s like a mini jail version of Election Day, Pischke said — without the voting machines.

Counties can learn from each other

Election administration is highly decentralized, as is jail administration. While state and federal laws offer broad guidelines, and the Pennsylvania Department of State oversees elections, much is done at the county level.

“They can learn from others and adopt it themselves,” Abney said of county jail administrators. “It’s not really rocket science. … There are enough best practices and examples from counties that you can put together.”

Still, having some uniformity is important, Abney and Ali said, because counties should share baseline standards for how to help inmates vote.

“You need some boundaries, you need some guidelines,” Ali said.

The right to vote matters, and it’s not about winning an election

Voting-rights advocates are quick to note that they’re not focused on winning a specific election. More important, they said, is that people who are in jail still have the right to vote — and should be allowed to exercise it.

“We don’t always do things in a democracy to see immediate results or to ‘win’ at that point,” Ali said.

For example, voting is habitual, and people who have positive experiences voting are likely to continue doing so in the future. And the groups most likely to interact with the criminal justice system are usually those least likely to vote.

“If we get them to actually vote, maybe they do start voting when they get out, maybe they carry it out,” Ali said. “Maybe they communicate with other occupants of the jail about voting.”

Jason Beasom, chief deputy at the Allegheny County jail, said he has no question about why the jail should be helping inmates vote.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “People have the right to vote. We need to encourage it and promote it.”