The days of blatant and direct disenfranchisement — literacy tests, poll taxes, etc. — might be in the past, but there are still countless Americans who struggle to have their voices heard on Election Day.
Indiana’s prison population, which was near 28,000 people as of July 1, 2015, according to the Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC), is one group unable to cast a ballot.
Indiana could be considered moderate compared to the rest of the country in terms of voting rights for felons. According to ProCon.org, Indiana is among 13 states (and Washington, D.C.) that restore a felon’s voting rights after the offender has served their full prison term.
On the stricter side of the spectrum, some states don’t restore voting rights until an offender completes their prison term, plus any parole and/or probation. In 11 states, felons are at risk of losing their vote indefinitely. To the opposite end, two states — Maine and Vermont — allow incarcerated voters to submit absentee ballots by mail.
Ryan Hahn, who is currently serving his third year for an armed robbery conviction at the Branchville Correctional Facility in southern Indiana, said he follows politics more closely now that he’s (in his words) “locked down.”
The Richmond, Indiana, native, who just celebrated his 28th birthday behind bars, will miss out on his home city’s mayoral election this November.
Hahn said if he could, he would “most definitely” cast a ballot Nov. 3. He recalls the one time he voted, saying it brought him a sense of pride.
“I can remember it being a big thing to me that my vote did count,” he said. “And now that’s taken from me.”
Hahn freely admits he made a mistake, but he says he still thinks it’s his right — and duty — to vote.
“I believe it’s every American’s right to vote, whether they’ve made mistakes or not,” Hahn said. “It’s a big part of our culture, and we should still take part in it no matter what.”
Hahn is expected to be released in late November, just weeks after Election Day. In the meantime, he’s keeping an eye on the presidential race so he can be prepared to sound off in May.
“I’m sort of leaning more toward Hillary right now,” he said.
Hahn is just one of many whose urge to vote will go unmet.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), roughly seven million people in the U.S. are under supervision — behind bars, on probation or on parole — on any given day.
The SPLC also notes racial disparities in the country’s justice system, the so-called “new Jim Crow.”
Indiana’s numbers back up the notion; as of July 1, 2015, 33 percent of the state’s incarcerated adults are Black, though African-Americans make up just 9.6 percent of Indiana’s total population.
Though the direct disenfranchisement of felons ends the minute they slip back into their street clothes, more barriers are waiting.
Shonna Majors, from PACE Indy (which stands for Public Advocates in Community Re-entry), said many ex-offenders are misinformed about their voting rights.
“A lot of them don’t know when they come out (of prison) that they can register (to vote),” Majors said.
Her organization works to counteract that misinformation by helping clients register, even keeping voter registration forms at the PACE office and helping clients submit them.
Another struggle awaiting people released from prison is the issue of housing. Incarceration is one of the top causes of homelessness in Indianapolis, and the homeless are another group facing widespread — though indirect — disenfranchisement.
A January 2015 one-night homelessness survey conducted by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute and the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP) found 1,666 homeless people in the city, and about a quarter of them (416) reported having felony convictions.
The report lists incarceration among the top three causes of homelessness in Indianapolis.
The one-night survey — called a point-in-time count — does not count every homeless person, but national research suggests the real number is between three and five times the point-in-time count.
Extrapolating Indianapolis’ one-night numbers takes the city’s number of homeless to 4,998–8,330.
The same racial disparity in incarceration numbers shows up in homeless data. Though Marion County’s population is only 27.8 percent Black, the January study found 54 percent (907) of the county’s homeless population identified as Black. Whites made up the next largest group (37 percent), and all other groups combined comprise the remaining 9 percent.
Alan Witchey, executive director of CHIP, said he thinks the homeless as a group face some of the highest barriers to voting.
Lacking a permanent address can complicate the process, he said.
“Your permanent address helps determine where you vote, you get communications from voting boards — those things that might say, ‘hey your district changed.’”
Beyond figuring out logistics, like when and where to vote, the homeless population also has to work harder to learn about candidates and issues.
“Homeless people are a little bit less informed; maybe it’s because they’re less connected to things like TV, media, promotions and advertisements by candidates,” Witchey said. “They might not hear if there are debates or discussions. They might not see interviews. They might not see as many actual issue-oriented items.”
Perhaps the biggest barrier for homeless voters Indiana’s voter ID law that went into effect July 1, 2005. The law, purporting to curb voter fraud, requires voters to present a government-issued photo ID. Thirty-two states have voter ID laws on the books. Indiana is one of 17 that require a photo ID.
Following the ID law takes little effort from most voters, but it can be a burden on the homeless.
“They are struggling to get food, clothing, to get their basic needs taken care of. In that process, losing an ID card is not uncommon,” Witchey said. “If I leave my ID card in my home, it’ll be there the next day … (but homeless) have to leave items behind, or you lose possessions because you obviously don’t have a place to store them.”
Voters without proper ID can cast a provisional ballot, but for the vote to count, the voter has to present a photo ID (or file an affidavit saying they can’t afford an ID) within 10 days.
The law was challenged on behalf of Indiana’s homeless population and eventually made it to the United State Supreme Court in 2008. The challenge was struck down with a 6–3 vote, allowing Indiana’s ID law to stand, despite the struggle created for the homeless.
The way Witchey describes it, there’s something inherently American about struggling.
“I think it’s really important to remember that people came to this country because they were struggling. Our country was full of people who struggled…
“America was based on making sure that every voice was heard … when you start excluding voices, our democratic process becomes less about the country as a whole and more about very specific populations.
“It’s very important for us to remember that this is one voice, but it is an important voice.”