Bail the Vote: RTV Minnesota advocates for voters in jail to activate their civil right to vote

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Its November 6th. Citizens are beating the drum of democracy with the national slogan “Get Out The Vote” to friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. The polling locations are filled with anticipated voters waiting to get the iconic “I voted” sticker. The battle of candidates will come to an end as Minnesotans find out who won the midterm elections. With their families or campaign team, eyes will be glued to the news outlets with fingers crossed for a result that will change the course of their futures, while others will be behind bars inside of county detention centers.

One month before elections, Restore the Vote Coalition launched a county-wide “Bail the Vote” effort to bring ballots behind the walls to eligible voters. Ramsey County was successful in coordinating with the coalition to give voters in custody access to the ballot. However, Hennepin County did not make early voting a priority for eligible voters in custody. Ramsey County remained the gold standard for the coalition’s “Bail the Vote” initiative. Many men and women inside of Ramsey County Correctional facility learned about the “down ballot” candidates who directly impact their lives: county attorney, county commissioner, county sheriff, and judges. The coalition educated voters on the county public officials and shared the importance of their vote despite being behind bars.

After educating inmates inside of Ramsey County Correctional facility, Restore the Vote Coalition offered absentee ballot request forms for each eligible voter along with Voter Agent forms. The coalition found a major barrier with requesting a voter delivery agent while in custody. According to Minnesota Statute 203B.11, the conditions to requesting an agent delivery of absentee ballot does not include county correctional facilities as a pertinent residency. Although the individuals were not convicted of a felony or on probation/parole and legally have the right to vote, voters in jail were not written in legislation to have access to absentee ballots through a voter delivery agent. Aslo, the coalition clarified many county officials misconceptions about inmates access to early voting. Individuals in correctional facilities have restrictions to phone and mailing services and do not have access to a computer. The coalition recognized a disconnect between County Corrections and County Elections, and filled the gap through communication, coordination, and compassion.

Anika Bowie, the lead coordinator of Restore the Vote Coalition and Vice President of Minneapolis NAACP, sent an email to all county officials, “Election Day is on November 6th from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. As county and elected officials, it is your job under the constitution to give people their right to vote. As the lead coordinator of the Restore the Vote Coalition, it is in our interest to make sure Ramsey County does not deny eligible voters in custody their right to vote. Therefore on election day, what are your plans to make sure individuals in your county correctional facilities can vote?”

Hours after the email, each county representative was activated. There were robust responses on how ballots were going to get inside of facilities so eligible voters in custody can utilize their right to vote. Booker T. Hodges, Chief Deputy of Ramsey County Sheriff Office and Liz Reetz, Assistant Superintendent of Ramsey County Correctional Facility were responsive to ensuring a safe and secured manner in helping detainees cast their ballot. John Klavin, Director of Ramsey County Community Corrections, thanked Restore the Vote Coalition for their efforts to fill in the gaps. “A big “thank you” to Anika for recently coming out to the RCCF and helping us with this process, reviewing any eligibility concerns, and addressing any other issues related to voting.” Jason Sole, Director of Community-First Public Safety for the City of Saint Paul, recognized Restore the Vote Coalition’s work as  great and necessary. Joseph Mansky, County Manager and David Triplett, Elections Specialists from the Ramsey County Elections Office, prioritized all voters by putting equity over administrative convenience this midterm elections.

“Bail the Vote” succeed by activating the individuals who are most impacted by voter suppression and granting voting access to individuals with the highest barriers to the polls. The coalition strengthened relationships with government and created new relationships with impacted individuals. Most importantly, the challenging questions sparked conversations with the Secretary of State and county elections on how to create an organized and accountable voting system for voters in custody. The question on who gets access to the ballot raised critical discussion and created potential pathways to new legislation this upcoming session that will represent all eligible voters.

The coalition will continue to fight for families and communities inside of the criminal justice system who do not have the legal right to vote. The partners who led “Balil the Vote” are Common Cause (Annastacia Belladonna), NAACP Minneapolis (Anika Bowie),  ACLU of Minnesota (Elizer Darris), League of Women Voters (Nick Harper), Black Votes Matter MN (Angela Williams) and. For more information, on how to get involved with Restore the Vote Coalition please visit the website and like the Facebook page “Restore the Vote Minnesota”.

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