Voting for the first time was a transformative experience for Kennard Ray. He’d first gone to prison when he was 16, and served about six years total for drugs and gun charges he picked up in the ’90s and early 2000s.
He hadn’t been eligible to vote when he was incarcerated for a felony, or while he was finishing parole.
“It had been unavailable to me for so long,” Ray recalled recently at a deli in Hartford, across the street from the federal courthouse. “Why would I think about it at that point?”
He almost cried the first time he cast a ballot, in 2008. “It was instantly empowering,” he said. “After that I started volunteering like crazy.”
A switch had flipped in Ray’s mind. He hadn’t truly realized the power he’d held, and how it could help his community. Not being able to vote was like being trapped behind an invisible fence.
“Just having that gate opened meant a world of change for me,” he said.
“It was instantly empowering. Just having that gate opened meant a world of change for me.”
Co-Director, Unlock the Vote
Ray is now the co-director of the Full Citizen Coalition to Unlock the Vote, a group that works to restore voting rights to people affected by felony disenfranchisement laws. In Connecticut, people serving time for a felony or who are on parole cannot vote, making the state the most restrictive in New England for felony disenfranchisement. In Vermont and Maine, U.S. citizens imprisoned for felonies are eligible to vote.
But those convicted of felonies aren’t the only people whose ability to vote is hampered by the criminal justice system: thousands of people locked up in Connecticut correctional institutions are eligible to vote, but their ability to participate in elections is severely limited due to their incarceration.
U.S. citizens whose crimes have not yet been adjudicated but remain behind bars, or who are serving a misdemeanor sentence, are eligible to vote in Connecticut. There were 4,317 such people in state facilities on July 1, 2019 —roughly 33% of the overall incarcerated population — though that number is a rough estimate since it could include people who are not U.S. citizens.
Many of those who are incarcerated before their cases are resolved remain imprisoned because they can’t raise the money to get out. “We are subjecting people to a civic death because they cannot afford to make bail,” Ray said.
“There’s not a bar or an absolute impediment to them voting,” said Sarah Russell, a member of the state’s Sentencing Commission and vice chair of its Incarceration and the Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction Subcommittee. “I think it’s an issue of knowledge and access.”
The commission is exploring whether there are any barriers these inmates face when trying to obtain and mail an absentee ballot, and considering what can be done to make it easier so that these men and women can exercise their right to vote.
“The biggest challenge is education,” said Gabe Rosenberg, communications director for Secretary of State Denise Merrill. “There is confusion at every level at who is actually allowed to vote.”
Complication upon complication
For context, those who are on parole or who are incarcerated for a felony are not allowed to vote. But those who are being held before trial, serving a misdemeanor sentence, or who are on probation can.
Access is another obstacle. The first step for inmates, Rosenberg said, is registering to vote, assuming they aren’t already registered. That’s a difficult task if they don’t have access to the internet or possess the required documents or forms of identification.
“The biggest challenge is education. There is confusion at every level at who is actually allowed to vote.”
Communications Director for Secretary of State Denise Merrill
“The way that a lot of people register to vote is not possible for someone who is currently incarcerated,” said Rosenberg.
Once they’re registered, they’ll need to have an absentee ballot application sent to them. “If they can’t call the town clerk’s office, they might have to write a letter to request the application,” Rosenberg said.
Once they receive the absentee ballot, they’ll need to fill it out and mail it back to their town clerk before the polls close on Election Day.
“The timeline on this is very tight because every part of it needs to be done through the mail,” said Rosenberg.
There are additional complications, said Michael P. Lawlor, former undersecretary of criminal justice policy and planning for former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. For one, the average length of stay is shorter for people arrested for low-level, misdemeanor crimes, and for those whose crimes have not been adjudicated.
“People who are locked up today for pretrial, chances are they are probably going to be out by Election Day,” said Lawlor.
They also could be transferred, complicating their efforts to send for, and receive, an absentee ballot. “Today they might be locked up in Cheshire Correctional, tomorrow they might be locked up at New Haven Jail,” Lawlor said.
Or, they could agree to a plea deal and be sentenced at any point in the registration or absentee ballot-acquiring and -mailing process. If they are convicted of a felony before Election Day, they’re ineligible to vote.
Even if they plead down to a lesser, misdemeanor charge and get sentenced to probation or time served, Lawlor said, they technically must have their absentee ballot destroyed and vote in person, since they won’t be incarcerated on Election Day. Lawlor said about 600 people every month go to court and do not return to a DOC correctional institution because they’re released from custody at the court house.
David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, has experience helping incarcerated voters cast their ballots. He said it’s common for inmates to get the run-around from state officials as they’re transferred from facility to facility.
“They got a lot of mixed messages in terms of where they were supposed to be sending the ballot,” he said. “It showed the need for some reform, to make it easy and accessible.”
“I do actually believe they would vote in large numbers, if they were made aware of their ability to do that and it was made easy for them to cast a ballot. Really, it shouldn’t be a time-consuming process while they’re inside.”
Executive Director of the ACLU of Connecticut
McGuire said once those incarcerated before trial or for misdemeanor crimes learn they’re eligible, they often want to vote because they feel that participating in the process might lead to better conditions in prison or in their home communities. They might also believe that voting can lead to the passage of criminal justice reforms.
“I do actually believe they would vote in large numbers, if they were made aware of their ability to do that and it was made easy for them to cast a ballot,” McGuire said. “Really, it shouldn’t be a time-consuming process while they’re inside.”
A cycle of disenfranchisement that doesn’t end
Rejecting critics’ notion that Democrats want those in jail to vote because it would benefit their own political party, Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, said democracies thrive when the largest share of eligible voters possible participate in elections.
If you’re a “lower-case “D” democrat,” Haskell said, “you ought to be doing everything you can to ensure access to the ballot box.”
Incarcerated Connecticut residents have perhaps even more motivation to vote than those who are not, Haskell suggested, because, “it’s hard to imagine anyone impacted by state policies more than those under the 24/7 watch of our state government.”
Ray and his colleague, James Jeter, a co-director of Unlock the Vote who spent 20 years in prison, admit there isn’t a huge appetite among Connecticut’s incarcerated population to vote. But that, Jeter said, is because many of them have never voted before.
“If I never had lobster, how do I know I like lobster?” he asked.
Felony disenfranchisement laws disproportionately affect people of color. White non-Hispanic residents make up 80% of the state’s population, but only about a third of incarcerated persons. African Americans and Latinos make up two-thirds of the prison population.
If large swaths of minority communities are unable to vote, Jeter said, it becomes more difficult for eligible minority voters to see the point of civic engagement.
“So, you go from a community that’s disengaged, to prison, and so it’s just a cycle that doesn’t end. So, you lose something that you never knew you had, and you don’t know the effects of it because you go back to the community that’s disengaged, and you just think, ‘This is what it is,’” Jeter said. “You have whole communities that are civic graveyards.”
“So, you go from a community that’s disengaged, to prison, and so it’s just a cycle that doesn’t end. You have whole communities that are civic graveyards.”
Co-Director, Unlock the Vote
Restoring voting rights to parolees and expanding ballot box access to the incarcerated are different parts of the same fight, Ray said. “We’re really working to get people a right to their citizenship.”
That fight isn’t just about being able to vote, Jeter said. “It’s about not being counted, or accounted for.”
Jeter has never voted. He can’t — he was incarcerated for 20 years, and now he’s on parole for 13 more. That means, barring the legislature restoring parolees’ rights to vote, he won’t be able to cast a ballot for another decade.
In the two-and-a-half years Jeter has been home, he’s learned a lot about the impacts of low voter turnout and the importance of civic engagement. Not being able to vote, to directly play a role in an election’s outcome, makes him feel powerless.
“It’s the weight of it,” he said. “No matter how much I see, I have no voice.”