“Chris Shanahan has voted.”
The 42-year-old beamed as he heard the familiar phrase told to Idahoans across the state when they submit their ballots on Election Day.
But Shanahan’s vote was not included as one of the over 590,000 ballots processed throughout the Gem State – instead, he was a part of a mock election at the Idaho Department of Correction. It was the first time the department has offered the event.
Shanahan, who is in custody at the South Idaho Correctional Institution south of Boise, is one of 25,381 people incarcerated, on parole or probation within the Idaho Department of Correction who couldn’t vote this Election Day, according to numbers provided to the Idaho Statesman by the department’s spokesperson Jeff Ray on Tuesday.
“I’ve never been able to vote before,” Shanahan told the Idaho Statesman in an in-person interview at the prison on Tuesday. Shanahan said he was hopeful the mock election could be an annual tradition.
Idaho is one of 14 states that allow citizens with felony convictions to vote once they have finalized their prison sentence and completed their probation or parole. Some states allow people to vote once they are released from prison entirely, while others prohibit some or all people with a felony conviction the ability to vote.
“You don’t lose your right to vote in Idaho – even for being a felon,” American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho spokesperson Jeremy Woodson told the Statesman by phone. “You will have to satisfy your sentencing requirements to be able to vote again, but at the end of the day, that right to vote is automatically restored.”
Shanahan has been in prison since he was 15 years old. Though he’s eligible for parole in 2030, he is serving a life sentence, which means his parole will be active for the rest of his life. He will never get the chance to vote.
Incarcerated residents vote in mock election
The roughly 700 men and women incarcerated at the South Idaho Correctional Institution were given an opportunity on Election Day to vote in a mock election and see what the election process is like.
In two rooms within the facility, roughly a dozen male and female residents on Tuesday checked people in, gave them ballots, voter guides and pamphlets, and discussed the election like any other polling place. On occasion the resident dog, Sammy, or the dog in training, Nala, would pass through, earning a pet – or 10 – from residents and staff.
The education building where residents typically take classes was decked out in red, white and blue stars along with American flags. Anyone voting was able to have privacy blinders, which were three-walled cardboard blinders typically used by residents to take tests.
Shanahan along with about half-a-dozen other male residents volunteered as poll workers and assisted with the mock election. Chris Beer, 31, one of the poll workers, told the Statesman he felt rejuvenated, as he hasn’t voted since he was 18 years old.
Kimberly King, a GED instructor with the Idaho Department of Correction, had the idea to hold the mock election. King teaches a range of classes and grade levels at the South Idaho Correctional Institution, but she said history and civic engagement are her favorite.
King told the Statesman that she is trying to kill the myth that a prior criminal history equals an inability to vote. Even for those who get out of prison and can’t vote, she added, there are plenty of other ways they can participate.
“When they are out of here, they can fully participate in their communities without a vote,” King told the Statesman.
Montana Reed, a 25-year-old incarcerated resident, also never voted, she told the Statesman on Tuesday. Reed was one of roughly a handful of female poll workers helping other residents cast their mock ballots.
The ballots were designed to look just like a ballot someone might find at one of their polling stations throughout Idaho.
James Hass, 61, told the Statesman that he felt the mock election helped him feel like he was important.
“We have the same concerns that they have out there,” Hass said, referring to voters outside of prison. Issues like inflation affect them too, as their commissary prices have increased and the increases in gas prices can make it challenging for family members to visit them, he said.
Aside from state prisons, the number of citizens who couldn’t vote, provided by Ray, also included incarcerated people that are in county jails, the Correctional Alternative Placement Program facility and at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, where a number of individuals are housed due to overcrowding issues.
Citizens in custody may face voting barriers
In Idaho, anyone qualified to vote who’s in custody at a county jail can request an absentee ballot through their county’s election office. But Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane told the Statesman by phone that in the last 10 years, his office has seen “a very small” number of absentee ballot requests.
“Most of them have other things on their minds,” McGrane said about people in jail.
A misdemeanor conviction in Idaho doesn’t strip someone of their voting rights. But those in jail on a felony probation or parole violation wouldn’t be able to vote.
But what happens if someone is arrested after the absentee ballot deadline – which was Oct. 28 – or on Election Day?
At the Ada County Jail they likely would “lose the opportunity to vote,” Ada County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Patrick Orr told the Statesman by email. There were 1,040 people in custody at the Ada County Jail on Tuesday, though it’s unclear how many spent the entire day in jail or already voted.
“If an inmate in that situation asked us to get a ballot, we would investigate if there was a way to do that – although it does not appear that such a mechanism exists,” Orr wrote in the email. McGrane agreed that someone in that situation wouldn’t be able to vote.
Woodson said he believed any individual who was arrested in the 11-day window between absentee ballots and Election Day would likely face “extreme hurdles” to cast a ballot.
“If they were to, for example, be locked up and say nothing about the election or about voting,” Woodson said, “I’m pretty sure that no one else would mention it.”
A 2020 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform and over-criminalization, found that most of the nearly 750,000 people jailed nationwide are eligible to vote, but that a lot of them don’t.
The report outlines some of the barriers people in jail face, including voter identification laws, mail delays, and limited access to personnel information. One solution the report pointed to was creating polling stations in jails, which some cities like Denver and Los Angeles have done.
“When people know they can vote from jail, they will vote,” the report said.
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