Can the Incarcerated Vote in the November General Elections?


By Gisele Nguyen-Gill

“Until today, I didn’t know I could vote. This institution, by not providing me with the necessary information, deprived me of my right, my civic duty as an American, to vote,” a detainee in Orange County Jail wrote to the Jail Project -Unlock the Vote Team on April 2018.

Throughout the country, there is widespread misconception that those who are incarcerated are not eligible to cast a vote. Some jail officers, local election authorities and detainees themselves do not realize the incarcerated have civil rights that are protected by the Constitution. Civic-minded U.S. citizens on the outside and those on the inside can make their voices heard by registering to vote in the General Election on November 6, 2018.

What is the ACLU - Unlock the Vote Campaign’s Purpose?

To increase awareness and demystify the voting process for eligible detainees, the ACLU, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending the principles of liberty and equality, has collaborated with community partners to launch Unlock the Vote (UTV), a voter education and registration campaign, aimed to reduce barriers to registration and voting for justice-involved and justice-impacted individuals in Orange County and Los Angeles County. To do this, the ACLU SoCal-Jails Project mails information to those who are incarcerated, registers formerly incarcerated individuals after their release from county jail and also registers family and friends to vote.

By informing the disenfranchised communities inside the Los Angeles and Orange County jails, the UTV campaign aims to increase access to voting for at least 23,000 people and their families. Historically, these folks have been denied their right to register without sufficient information to register and cast a ballot.

According to the ACLU So Cal, more than 60,000 people are booked annually into five county jail facilities in Orange County alone. At any point in time, there are approximately 6,000 people incarcerated and more than 50% of those incarcerated have not been convicted of a crime.  (LA County jail is the largest in the world. Data is currently unavailable.)

What are your right to vote in California?

In California, if a detainee is a U.S. Citizen, 18 or older and mentally stable, they have a right to vote unless they are currently serving a State or Federal prison sentence or currently on parole. To break it down further and simplify who can vote in county jails,  the following individuals are eligible to vote.

  • If a detainee is in county jail awaiting trial or on trial for any crime, for a misdemeanor conviction, for probation violation, for felony probation or for serving a jail sentence under Realignment (AB109), they can vote. 
  • Detainees who are not eligible to vote are those who are awaiting transfer to a state or federal prison for a felony conviction, a parole violation and/or serving in a state prison sentence under a contract with a county jail.  

If I’m eligible, what steps do I take to get more information about UTV?

If a detainee is eligible to vote, they can obtain helpful UTV materials and toolkit on how vote by contacting the ACLU Jails Project - Unlock the Vote, 1851 E. First Street, Suite 450, Santa Ana, CA 92705. 

Why vote?

Your right to vote is a civil right that is protected by the laws in our democracy. Unlike other countries in the world, you have a choice! Your actions and votes matter in electing the following: members of Congress and the Senate who writes the laws, the Governor who signs bills into law, Judges who interprets the law, the Sheriff who runs the county jails, the District Attorney who decides which criminal case to prosecute and guides sentencing and many other local offices. and Your vote can also affect local and state initiatives and bonds that can have a dramatic impact on our lives.

If you are incarcerated, we hope you are informed and inspired to act and vote in the November General Elections.  The ACLU Jails Project - Unlock the Vote appreciates receiving letters with  questions or comments like the above mentioned individual who vigorously values her civic right to vote. The writer concluded in her letter, “..thank you for providing me with the brochure and for restoring my right to vote. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”

Gisele Nguyen-Gill, CEO, MBA, ACB, CL, is a writer, teacher, public speaker and business owner.