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New report shows community impact of expanding voter access in jails across Michigan

Former inmate says giving people in jail that voice can help them get engaged and help transform communities across Michigan
Published: Oct. 13, 2021 at 6:19 PM EDT
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GENESEE COUNTY, Mich. (WJRT) - It’s a basic right often ignored for people behind bars: the right to vote.

People waiting for a trial in jail have the right to vote, but they face many barriers to help make it happen.

There are on average 8,000 people in jail waiting for a trial each day in Michigan, and come Election Day, thousands of these eligible voters are silenced.

Tony Gant remembers not getting the chance to vote when he was in the county jail.

“I remember watching the news and watching when Obama was running for President, and wishing that I had an opportunity to be involved,” Gant said.

When at the jail, he had not been convicted of a crime, but Gant didn’t realize that meant he did have the right to vote.

“It felt powerless. It felt like I was not part of the country. I was not part of the community,” Gant said.

Now, more than 25 years later, Gant is a policy analyst with Nation Wide, a statewide organization made up of formerly incarcerated people working to fix the issue.

“Who better to share their perspective than those who are experiencing the most intimate relationship with Michigan and its services? Those who are experiencing it at a level that most won’t,” Bilal Hammoud said. Hammoud is part of public engagement for the Michigan Department of State.

To better understand the current voting structure in jails, Nation Outside joined forces with Voting Access for All, receiving 70 responses from county jails statewide showing 55% percent do something about voting in jail.

“Unfortunately, doing something can be something as little as putting a poster on the wall and saying, ‘Hey! You can vote,’ without really helping people understand what that means,” Gant said.

Other findings show some concerns like just 18% providing some support to register to vote and just seven having policies to overcome barriers to vote in jail, including Genesee and Saginaw counties.

What they want to see instead is putting six standards in place like voter education and registration to make access to voting easier.

“The moral question today is are the current or formerly incarcerated citizens? If yes, then the right to vote should be honored. If not, then I question our integrity and soul as Americans,” Flint resident, Todd Womack said.

Gant added, “Giving people that voice and that power and that engagement and community is something that can be transformative. The more we can engage people in community, the less likely they are to commit crime or reoffend.”

To read the full report, click here.

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