You can be free to vote, even behind bars

Published 11:23 am Monday, March 16, 2020

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Birmingham, Alabama is a landmark city for the American civil rights movement. Even today, it’s ground zero for a vital fight over voting rights.

I visited Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham recently to deliver inmates a simple message: you are free to vote, even if you don’t know it. And now is the time for you to claim and exercise this right.

I was there with volunteers from The Ordinary People Society (TOPS), the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, and prominent Birmingham lawyers. All are veterans of voter registration drives, but for most this was their first time registering voters in a jail or prison.

Nationwide, more than 6 million people are kept from voting because of felony convictions. Many millions more who haven’t been convicted are wrongly told they are ineligible to vote when they are awaiting trial.

Now we want to let all of these citizens know they are free to vote, even if they are behind bars.

Since 2003, Rev. Kenneth Glasgow and other members of TOPS and the Prodigal Child Project have gone into jails and prisons to register new voters. In 2007, we convinced Florida to restore voting rights to 150,000 people, which laid the groundwork for last year’s landmark referendum in that state to restore the right to vote to more than 2 million.

The state of Alabama, however, has resisted this change. So in 2008, we took them to court — and won.

For 106 years, Alabama lied to those who were convicted of felonies and told them they had lost their right to vote forever. And there are still plenty in Alabama who want to keep it that way.

We won’t let that happen. So now, with a new coalition called Alabama RACE (Restoring Alabama’s Civic Engagement) with Hometown Action, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Voices of the Violated, and the Alabama Black Women’s Roundtable, we’re doubling down to register voters in every one of our hundreds of state, city, and county jails and prisons.

In 2017, after our campaigns, Alabama passed the “Moral Turpitude Act,” which restored the right to vote for more than a quarter million people — including many who are still behind bars.

Our latest victory is that Alabama’s absentee ballots now clearly state you have the right to vote, even if you are currently incarcerated or have a previous conviction. Alabama is the only state in the nation where this is true.

We’ve already registered nearly 10,000 voters, but to reach them all, we need all the help we can get.  And before November, we’ll register more voters in Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee — four states that, like Alabama, suffer from the legal legacy of Jim Crow.

Since this issue affects millions more potential voters in every state, we have partnered with Just Leadership USA and the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People & Families Movement to train volunteers in 30 states and have developed a toolkit any organization can use to register incarcerated voters.

Anyone who wants to bring these tools to their hometown can text RELEASE to 33777.

For every voter we register inside a prison or jail, there are two to five loved ones or family members on the outside who are inspired to register, too. That’s the real power of this hidden vote.

Whenever we go behind bars to register new voters, we don’t ask if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. We don’t care about that. What we do care is that you, like every citizen — Black or white, incarcerated or not — know you are free to vote.

Voting is a sacred right we fought for you to have, and now we’ll fight for you to use it. We need your help to make sure all citizens have access to the ballot.


Kenyetta Rich is the co-executive director of The Ordinary People Society (TOPS). This op-ed was distributed by