Voting is our fundamental right as citizens, and everyone who is eligible to vote should have equal access to exercise their rights. However, there is a misconception that people who are confined in a jail or formerly incarcerated have lost that right completely.
In 2019, we sent letters to officials at local and regional jails across the Commonwealth to remind them of their duty to protect the voting rights of all those who are currently detained in Virginia jails while awaiting trial or serving a misdemeanor sentence.
It’s important to know your voting rights and remember that you, a family member or a friend who has served or is serving time in jail on a misdemeanor or is being detained pre-trial, is entitled to vote if they do not have a prior felony conviction. Anyone previously convicted of a felony can petition the governor to restore their voting rights.
Virginia law states that all registered voters being held in jail can request an absentee ballot and, under certain circumstances, must be taken by jail officials to a polling site on Election Day.
You are eligible to vote if:
- You are registered to vote in Virginia.
- You are being detained in jail awaiting your court date.
- You are currently in jail on a misdemeanor conviction.
- You do not have a prior felony conviction or the governor has restored your right to vote.
To have a complete democracy, everyone who eligible to vote should have access to exercise their right, even if confined in a jail. Detained individuals deserve the accessibility to vote for a candidate whose priorities align with their beliefs. Ultimately, the policies put in place by elected officials affect people entangled in the criminal justice system.
Virginia’s jail population is around 28,000 people on any given day; of these, 46 percent have not been convicted of a crime and are in jail awaiting trial. The racial and socioeconomic disparity in the Commonwealth's jails is alarming, where 43% of people in jail are black. Many people are in jail due to unfair practices in the legal system, such as excessive bail fees.
How can we have a fair democracy when there isn’t a fair representation of our community deciding who represents them in government? The vote of someone who is detained is as valuable as any other citizen.
How can we have a fair democracy when there isn’t a fair representation of our community deciding who represents them in government? The vote of someone who is detained is as valuable as any other citizen. Sheriffs and jail superintendents have the duty to ensure those currently held in jails are allowed to vote and have access to the ballot box.
The ACLU of Virginia has sent a letter to sheriffs and superintendents reminding them to honor the voting rights of jail residents by disseminating voting rights information, inviting registrars to facilitate registration of eligible voters in their facilities, asking eligible people whether they wish to apply for an absentee ballot, and taking other steps to protect the voting rights of all eligible Virginians in their custody.
All elections are important, and every vote is crucial to help make our democracy whole. Now it’s time to exercise your voting rights, understand your candidates’ positions, and make a plan to vote. If you know of someone currently detained in jail, make sure to inform them of their rights so they, too, can join you this November in selecting future representatives who will decide on laws that affect all of us.