- Luke Eastman
Kassie Tibbott spent several weeks this fall visiting five Vermont state prisons with the goal of getting local inmates to vote. The recent Vermont Law School graduate was happy to help 44 prisoners register for the first time. She was even more elated to meet 39 inmates already on the voter rolls, who simply asked for help getting absentee ballots. Dozens of others didn't need assistance because they already knew the ropes.
Vermont and Maine are the only two U.S. states that allow inmates to vote. Vermonters behind bars only have to meet the same requirements as everyone else: They must be at least 18 years old, a U.S. citizen and a legal resident of Vermont. Prisoners vote via absentee ballot in the town where they lived before they were incarcerated.
Former inmate Jeremy MacKenzie said he voted in several elections while imprisoned, both in Vermont and in a privately run facility in Kentucky where Vermont used to send its overflow prisoners. He said casting a ballot may seem like a small thing, but it played a big part in helping him feel like a part of the outside world. A Burlington native, MacKenzie was released in March 2013 after serving eight years for crimes including drug trafficking and bank robbery.
"You've got a lot of people disconnected from their community, and any way they can participate in the process of their community, especially in a positive way, is important," said MacKenzie. "People who are incarcerated, we're coming back to the communities we came from, and we have families that are home. So to think that voting decisions don't ripple down to people in prison is not correct."
Chris Barton, the Vermont Department of Corrections' restorative systems administrator, oversees the voting program. The DOC hangs informational posters in facilities at least 90 days before elections, Barton said, and welcomes volunteers such as Tibbott and members of the League of Women Voters to hold voting registration drives and informational sessions.
Inmates handle everything — registering to vote and requesting and sending in their absentee ballots — via mail.
"The more they can normalize their life on the inside so they will be engaged in civic life when they get out, the better," Barton said.
The DOC does not keep stats on how many inmates vote because it never takes custody of ballots, Barton said. And not all of Vermont's 1,730 inmates can participate in democracy; some are legal residents of other states that don't allow inmates to vote.
Awareness of that disparity actually motivated a number of incarcerated Vermonters this year, according to Tibbott, a Barnard resident.
"Some of them, because they saw that some of their fellow inmates couldn't vote, they thought, I had better do it," said Tibbott. "I heard quite a few times inmates say, 'See, our voice does matter.'"
Outside Vermont and Maine, many people convicted of crimes are prohibited from casting a ballot. In 14 states, felons get their voting rights restored once they leave prison, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 21 states, they have to wait until they also complete their terms of probation or parole.
In 13 states, they permanently lose voting rights or need a gubernatorial pardon in order to reengage in the electoral process.
Residents in one such state, Florida, are reconsidering its policy of keeping convicts out of the voting booth forever. On Election Day, they'll decide yea or nay on a ballot amendment that would restore voting rights for 1.5 million Floridian felons who have been released from jail.
Restrictions on inmates' and felons' voting rights have been criticized as inherently racist. In 2016, 55 percent of U.S. prisoners were African American or Hispanic, compared to 30 percent of the overall U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center. Whites — who represent almost two-thirds of the U.S. population — accounted for less a third of the country's prison population.
The disproportion is even more dramatic in Vermont, where blacks make up 1 percent of the state's overall population but 8.5 percent of its inmates, according to an October 2018 legislative report.
That may indicate bias in Vermont's criminal justice system. But there have been no significant legal or political challenges to inmate voting rights in recent memory, according to Secretary of State Jim Condos. "I've never heard of any issue with it," Condos said. "I'm sure there are people who think you should lose your rights, but that's not what Vermont's constitution says."
While prison rules vary, inmates generally have access to news through television, newspapers and electronic tablets. But when Tibbott visited, she heard little political chatter, she said — with one exception. A group of inmates inside Rutland's Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility, which mostly houses inmates who are from the southern part of the state, were eager to cast ballots in the Bennington County state's attorney's race, she said.
For years the region had a disproportionately high incarceration rate, and its prosecutors have a reputation for being aggressive and opposing criminal justice reform.
Former inmate MacKenzie, who now attends film school in California, recalled that election-season discussions in prisons were little different from those taking place on the outside. Some inmates follow current events closely and have deeply held beliefs, he said, while others don't care and couldn't be bothered to cast a ballot.
Tom Dalton, the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform and a frequent DOC critic, said the voting program was a feather in the agency's cap.
"There aren't many things that an incarcerated person gets to participate in in our democracy," Dalton said. "I feel proud when I can put on an 'I voted' sticker, and for people who have a lot fewer opportunities for participation, it can mean even more."