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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Liman Center and Partners: Plan Needed for CT Prisoner Votes to Count

voting stickers

COVID-19 has made voting harder for all Connecticut residents. As many as 3,400 eligible voters detained in Connecticut’s jails face additional hurdles. They are at risk of not having their votes counted because they can’t get or return ballots. The Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School has joined with several organizations to propose immediate and long-term solutions to protect these voters’ rights.

Under Connecticut law, individuals detained in jails and prisons are eligible to vote if they are pretrial or are serving a sentence for a misdemeanor offense. Connecticut law also provides that people who have had felony convictions are eligible to vote if they are not currently serving a felony sentence or on parole from that felony. But these potential voters need to be able to register, get ballots, and return them.

Based on publicly available information, the Liman Center, the Civil Justice Clinic at Quinnipiac University School of Law, New Haven Legal Assistance, and the Campaign Legal Center found that some 900 people in detention in Connecticut are registered to vote. According to public records, an additional 2,500 people in prisons and jails are not currently registered and appear also to be eligible to vote. Yet registering for absentee ballots and getting them back to the right place is hard — especially two weeks before Election Day. 

“The challenges to vote for people in prisons and jails in Connecticut are easy to see,” said Zal Shroff, Senior Liman Fellow in Residence. “People in detention can’t pick up voting forms like most people. They have no direct access to the internet to find voting information. Even if they could download forms, they wouldn’t be able to print them without help. And the Department of Correction itself is not yet fully equipped with the computers needed and not all staff at all facilities have online access.”

The Liman Center, whose projects focus on incarceration, got involved in September when community volunteers identified an urgent need for voter assistance. Liman faculty Yale Law School students Clarissa Kimmey ’22, Yolanda Bustillo ’22, Sophie Laing ’21, Molly Petchenik ’21, and Fiza Khan ’22 researched the law. They then contacted some local registrars and town clerks, the municipal officials who are charged with registration and distributing absentee ballots. With help from many state officials, legislators, prison administrators and community activists, the Liman Center amassed information on the issues related to voting while in detention. In addition, Liman student Eli Feasley ’21 searched a large amount of publicly available data and was able to identify likely eligible voters in DOC custody.

By early October, when it became clear that the Department of Correction and the Secretary of the State had not provided voter registration and absentee ballot applications to eligible individuals in custody, the Liman Center and Quinnipiac’s Civil Justice Clinic mailed information about voting to 3,400 Connecticut detained residents whom public records showed were likely eligible to vote.

Once these voters register, they need to get absentee ballots and to return them by Election Day. Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill has told Connecticut voters not to rely on the U.S. mail to return ballots. The state has provided drop boxes for voters in every city and town in Connecticut.

As of Oct. 21, the state has not announced a plan to collect absentee ballots from people in jails and prisons and to bring those ballots to local election officials in voters’ hometowns. What is needed now is a ballot pick-up plan so that all votes can be counted, Liman Center and partners said.

The short-term goal of advocates and election officials is to make this election work. The good news is that, in light of COVID, for the 2020 election only, the Secretary of the State’s office is treating DOC staff as “designees” who could assist jailed voters by delivering ballots to local election officials. The Secretary can also call on local officials to pick up ballots from correctional facilities.”

“We appreciate the commitment of both the Secretary of the State and the Department of Correction for their goals to make significant revisions in the future,” said Judith Resnik, Arthur Liman Professor of Law and Liman Center Founding Director. “What is likely needed now is for the governor to augment their resources.”

In the long term, putting a permanent system in place for all Connecticut citizens to vote is critical. New legislation is needed to do so and to put into focus the specific challenges of people in detention, according to those working on the issue. In recent months, the Department of Correction and the Secretary of the State have discussed with many groups, including the Liman Center, their plans to work on legislative reforms. After this election, Resnik said the Liman Center will be part of the group helping to draft and enact necessary changes to make voting possible for all Connecticut residents.