Monday, March 15, 2021

Liman Center Urges CT to Lift Barriers to Voting While Incarcerated

Thousands of eligible voters in Connecticut jails and prisons face “serious and often insurmountable” barriers to voting. But the legislature can lift those barriers with a few changes to the law, a student from the Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School told state lawmakers.

Clarissa Kimmey ’22 testified on March 10 on behalf of the Liman Center before the Connecticut General Assembly’s Committee on Government Administration and Elections. The committee is considering several bills to reform voting in the state. Kimmey’s testimony was in support of one bill that would restore voting rights to people with felony convictions who are released on parole. The Liman Center also submitted written testimony prepared by students Katherine Fang ’22, Liam Gennari ’22, and Natalie Kirchhoff ’22, under the supervision of Clinical Lecturer in Law and Senior Liman Fellow Zal K. Shroff.

WATCH: Testimony of Clarissa Kimmey ’22 to the Government Administration and Elections Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly

The Liman Center proposed amendments to the bill, An Act Concerning Participation In The Electoral Process, to focus on specific problems voters who are incarcerated face. Those additions would mean the bill “not only does the important work of re-enfranchising members of our community, but ensures those who already have the right to vote can vote,” Kimmey said.

Under current Connecticut law, people incarcerated while awaiting trial or after misdemeanor convictions are eligible to vote. People convicted of felonies are not eligible until they have completed parole. Liman Center research of public records showed that 3,000 to 4,000 people in Connecticut jails and prisons were eligible to vote in the last election.

To vote from behind bars, however, individuals must “navigate a maze of forms and mailings,” Kimmey explained. The Liman Center, which often focuses on the rights of incarcerated people, saw how complicated the process can be. At the request of several community groups, the Liman Center took up the issue as the 2020 election approached. The problem is that in Connecticut, which makes voting a legal right for many incarcerated people, it is practically impossible to do so.

“To go from being unregistered to casting an absentee ballot requires at minimum seven mailings. Some of these forms go to the registrar and some go to the town clerk. Not every town does it in the same way,” Kimmey said, adding, “The process was expensive, time-consuming, and difficult to understand.”

The Liman Center was able to help 200 people cast their votes during the 2020 election, “and dozens of people wrote saying how much it meant to them to be able to vote, even during this difficult time in their lives,”  Kimmey said.

Written testimony from the Liman Center quoted incarcerated people who weren’t able to vote in the 2020 election, including one person who only received an absentee ballot after Election Day. Another wrote “I never received any type of ballot and never got to vote. I feel like my rights were suppressed.”

To ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote can, the Liman Center is proposing three “straightforward” changes to Connecticut law:

  1. Require the Department of Correction to provide voter registration forms when someone first enters a correctional facility and help them complete the registration process.
  2. Provide for absentee ballots to be automatically sent to eligible incarcerated voters.
  3. Authorize election staff to drop off and pick up absentee ballots from local correctional facilities, should someone be arrested soon before Election Day and there isn’t time to request a mail-in ballot.

The Center also outlined its recommendations in an information sheet for lawmakers and proposed bill language.

“The history of voting rights in this country shows that having the formal right to vote is important, but it isn’t always enough,” Kimmey said. “The state has an active role to play in removing barriers to voting and ensuring that every voice is heard. These changes help ensure Connecticut is meeting that obligation.”

For the Liman Center’s recommendations to go forward, a state representative would have to propose them as amendments to one of several bills addressing voting that have been referred to the Government Administration and Elections Committee this session. If the committee reports those bills favorably, the General Assembly, Connecticut’s legislative body, will consider them.

The Liman Center’s involvement in this issue is through the Liman Projects, a Yale Law School class in which students and faculty work together on research related to detention and access to justice. The Center’s work supports efforts to bring about a more just legal system.