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Pennsylvania’s Ex-Cons Can Vote, But Many Don’t Realize It

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Inmates serving time for misdemeanors or awaiting pretrail services are eligible to vote in Pa., even if they haven't served their full sentence. Only inmates serving time for felonies on Election Day are ineligible.

Social justice advocates worry misinformation is preventing formerly incarcerated men and women from casting their ballot.

“Because there are a number of states that require people to take more steps before they can vote if they have a felony conviction, there’s a lot of confusion over who can vote with a criminal conviction in Pennsylvania,” said American Civil Liberties Union Pennsylvania Senior Staff Attorney Sara Rose. “We’ve been doing a lot of work to try to dispel that.”

It’s estimated that more than 6 million people in the United States will not be eligible to vote this November because they’ve been convicted of a felony, but Pennsylvania is not among them. The commonwealth is one of 14 states that immediately restores voting rights after an individual has completed his or her sentence.  

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Inmates at the Allegheny County Jail not serving time for felony convictions will vote by absentee ballot on Nov. 3.

Rose said only two groups of people can't vote --individuals serving time for felonies who are still incarcerated on Election Day and people who have been found guilty of voter fraud in the past four years.

Nonprofit criminal justice advocacy group The Sentencing Project estimates nearly 53,000 people will be in prison or jail with a felony convictions in 2016.  More than half that population identify as black or African American. Statistics are based on studies of felony disenfranchisement and state Departments of Corrections records.

Rose said Pennsylvania law used to ensure that if a felon was registered to vote before incarceration, he or she could vote immediately upon release. If they weren’t registered, they had to wait five years after their release to vote again.

“The courts looked at that and said, ‘That’s irrational, that doesn’t make any sense,’” Rose said. “The court struck that down and the legislature hasn’t taken any action since.”

ACLU leaders met with Pittsburgh organizations more than a decade ago to discuss how to reach the demographic of formerly incarcerated eligible voters. Rose said they ran ads on city buses, updated county Board of Elections web pages and sent letters to officers encouraging them to inform their parolees about their voting rights.

Credit Port Authority
Port Authority
In 2012, the ACLU ran ads on Port Authority buses informing formerly incarcerated individuals that they were eligible to vote in Pennsylvania.

“One of the reasons we want to make sure people know they can vote, even if they have a criminal conviction, is voting is a way to participate in your community,” Rose said. “It’s a way to affect change and gives them another stake in their community.”

Before that reentry, many inmates register to vote with help from Jack Pischke. As the Allegheny County Jail Inmate Program Administrator, Pischke is in charge of providing the inmate population with voting information. He said in his 33 years at the jail, registering the inmates has been a fairly easy process, but he has learned some tricks.

“On every pod, I’m going to have an example next year,” Pischke said. “Like, ‘John Smith, 1414 Mockingbird Lane, Pittsburgh, Pa 15206. And hopefully they can follow the example.”

Generally, Pischke said the inmates seem interested in the elections. He remembers inmates during the Bush and Obama campaign cycles who were as passionate about the issues as the politicians themselves.

“This one right now, they don’t seem as interested,” he said.

He estimated that he's registered about 80 inmates this election cycle, but keeping track of that number is tricky because the population at the jail is so transient.

Pittsburgh resident Sam, who didn't want to give his last name, is voting for the first time this fall. At age 20, he has a criminal record and spent time in jail over the summer.

He isn’t particularly excited about his choices this election, but does have some very specific concerns for the next Commander in Chief.

“Issues that matter to me most (are) fitness to be president, community and everything down to the family and education,” Sam said.

Sam said he discovered he could vote while researching his own criminal record.

According to the Sentencing Project, around .5 percent of eligible, incarcerated Pennsylvania voters will be disenfranchised next month as they continue to serve jail and prison time.

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, Rose said the ACLU will monitor a toll free number 24 hours a day for anyone not sure about their voting eligibility or in need of assistance. 

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm