Ballots have been counted and winners declared in North Carolina’s midterm elections. The state American Civil Liberties Union wants to know whether eligible voters being held in county jails had the opportunity to participate, and how that process works in facilities where movement and information are limited by design. 

North Carolina, like every state aside from Maine and Vermont, places restrictions on felons’ voting rights. People in the state’s jails, however, are eligible to register and vote as long as they are citizens, at least eighteen, have lived at their home address for at least thirty days prior to the election, and aren’t serving an active sentence, probation, or parole for a felony conviction.  

But thousands of people—serving misdemeanor sentences or awaiting trial—may be eligible to vote and stuck in jail on Election Day. At minimum, federal law requires that they be provided with access to voter registration and absentee voting materials.

Ahead of Tuesday’s election, the ACLU of North Carolina asked eight counties for their policies and procedures concerning detainees’ voting access. The letters went out to sheriff’s offices, district attorneys, and elections boards in Alamance, Cabarrus, Edgecombe, Gaston, Granville, Guilford, Jackson, and Durham Counties. Emily Seawell, an ACLU staff attorney, says the organization chose those counties to try to get a mix of rural, urban, and big and small counties that weren’t still reeling from recent hurricanes.

“We have been hearing from various places around the state that there might not be procedures set up to allow people in jail to vote,” Seawell told the INDY.

The organization asked the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement whether it had issued any formal guidance on how to make voting accessible in jails, but the board turned up none, Seawell says—which means decisions on how and when detainees can get voter registration and voting-by-mail materials may be falling on sheriffs, who run county jails.

“Consider the optics,” says Seawell. “A lot of places in the state this election have sheriff’s races and district attorneys’ races on the ballot, and if people who are detained in jail are not being provided access to voting and that’s a decision being made by the sheriff’s office, that’s problematic.”

Seawell says the ACLU is trying to get a sense of what policies exist across the state, and where they don’t exist, to jumpstart a conversation. The organization is also planning to work with the state elections board to come up with statewide guidance.

According to the Vera Institute, about fifteen thousand people were held pretrial in local jails across North Carolina in 2015—many of whom are in jail only because they could not afford to post bail to get out.

“We may be talking about a small number of folks in small rural counties,” says Seawell. “In larger counties, like Durham or Mecklenburg, it could be a number of folks that’s significant. Especially in some local races, like county commissioner and local ballot initiatives, just a few votes can swing the election either way.”

North Carolina law allows for Multi-Partisan Assistance Teams, members of which are appointed by local elections boards, to help people who can’t get to polls vote. That model is often used in nursing homes. Seawell suggests it could work for jails as well.

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office invites in a nonpartisan voter education organization called You Can Vote to register people in the jail to vote and help them request absentee ballots. You Can Vote director Kate Fellman says the organization encounters a lot of misunderstandings about who is eligible to vote.

“I’d say about nine times out of ten that the voter has misinformation about why they can’t vote or they think they can’t vote and they really can. Most of the time, it’s around a prior felony conviction,” Fellman says.

The biggest misconception: That once convicted of a felony, a person is barred from voting for life. In North Carolina, voting rights are restored after a felon completes his or her sentence.

Fellman says You Can Vote—a project of the People’s Alliance Fund—approached the Durham County Sheriff’s Office about holding voter registration drives prior to the 2016 election. To date, You Can Vote has helped more than 250 voters register and nearly 300 request absentee ballots in the Durham County Detention Facility.

Ahead of You Can Vote visits, jail staffers post voter eligibility information, a sign-up sheet, and announce when You Can Vote will be coming. Volunteers and one staff person then help detainees figure out if they are eligible and registered to vote. (Previously, unregistered voters are asked to register with the address where they plan to stay after their released; those who don’t have an address can use the jail’s.) They also help detainees request absentee ballots be delivered to them at the jail so they can vote by mail, and advise them they can vote in person if they are released in time.

Volunteers tell people in the jail about what’s on the ballot—this year that meant a lot of talk about the six proposed constitutional amendments—but because You Can Vote is nonpartisan, they do not provide candidate information.

“I think the hardest thing is they don’t have access to technology while they’re incarcerated,” Fellman says. “They don’t have computer access to research candidates.”

Detainees in the Durham jail have access to the Durham Herald-Sun. Election mail addressed to individuals by name will be delivered, but general mailers to the jail address or a “current resident” will get tossed, says DCSO spokeswoman AnnMarie Breen.

Particularly in an election cycle featuring offices that directly affect the justice-involved—sheriff, district attorney, and judges—candidate information is key.

“People who are incarcerated already lack a voice,” says Seawell. “This is just taking away one of the avenues they have to take part in society, contribute to their communities, and make change happen in a positive way that would affect them. We’re taking away that voice by denying them the right to vote and making those who are already powerless to some degree even more powerless.”

Wake County isn’t as proactive as Durham. You Can Vote went into the Wake jail once ahead of the 2016 election, Fellman says, but hasn’t gotten permission to return since.  

Paul Gessner, the Wake County Sheriff’s Office legal adviser, says the voter registration drives—which required staff to conduct background checks on all volunteers and escort them through the facility—had to be canceled “due to a severe staffing shortage in the jail.”

According to the Wake County Detention Center operations manual, detainees who wish to register to vote or request an absentee ballot should write to the Wake County Board of Elections and ask for the relevant paperwork—which means they need to be well-versed in election schedules to ensure that slow mail delivery doesn’t cause them to miss a deadline. Gessner says postage is provided for indigent detainees and that the same instructions are spelled out in the handbook given to everyone in the jail, including the address for the Wake elections board.

For the state ACLU, the issue falls at the intersection of two of its priorities: voting rights and bail reform.

“This is another administrative fee placed on people who’ve been arrested and charged with something that violates their rights just because they can’t afford to pay [bail]. In this case, it’s the right to vote,” says Seawell. “This is just another instance where you’re putting a burden on the poorest people in our state and they’re losing their political voice to do anything to change the fact that they’re the poorest people in our state.”     

Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.