How to vote in jail or if you have a record

To learn more about how to vote and where to find your nearest polling center or ballot drop-off location, read our story What You Need to Know to Vote in the 2022 California General Election. Leer en español aqui.

In some states, if you’re convicted of a felony, you’ll lose the right to vote forever. That is not the case in California. Those previously imprisoned for a crime will have their voting rights restored. Those in prison and not serving a crime can also vote.

If you have a friend or relative who is or has been incarcerated and would like to help them vote, here is some information on how to get started.

Who is allowed – and who is not – to vote

U.S. citizens 18 years of age or older may register and vote in the upcoming November 8 election under the following circumstances:

  • If you are in county jail and not en route to federal or state jail
  • On probation
  • On probation
  • To the duty of supervision
  • For community monitoring after release
  • On federally supervised release
  • You are a person with a Juvenile Guardianship Judgment

Probationers convicted of a felony were not allowed to vote until Proposition 17 was passed in 2020.

What is the difference between jail and prison?

The terms are often used interchangeably, but refer to two different detention facilities.

Prison: Prisons are operated by County Sheriff’s Departments and usually incarcerate people with sentences of one year or less. The people who are usually in jail are charged with misdemeanors, awaiting trial or conviction, or jailed for civil issues such as contempt of court. Persons serving a crime can also be imprisoned.

Prison: These are facilities that typically hold people serving sentences for crimes that can last years or a lifetime. There are both state prisons and federal prisons.

Source: Associated Press style guide

Those who cannot vote or register to vote include those currently serving a state or federal felony sentence in the following locations:

  • state prison
  • federal prison
  • county jail or other type of correctional facility

You can find out if your friend or relative is eligible to vote by completing this survey on the Secretary of State’s website.

How to vote out of prisons

The San Diego Registrar of Voters (ROV) said it coordinates with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and its detention facilities before and during each election cycle. This includes coordinating the collection and delivery of issued ballots with correctional counselors at each facility.

“We send out contacts to our detention facilities: key election dates, updates, flyers, voter registration deadlines, updated voter registration training materials, and we also supplement registration forms when detention facilities require them,” Cynthia Paes, director of ROV, said in an email .

Here are the necessary steps to register to vote and vote in prison:

1. Determine if you are already registered to vote. You can check the registration status on the State Department website if you are unsure. If the address given on the registration is a residential address, family members, friends or someone in their household can bring the detainee’s ballot.

2. If they are not registered, the detainee must request a voter registration card at the counseling center of the institution. The inmate must fill out a form as part of the application.

“Information on how to apply for a voter registration card is part of the orientation video played daily at all prisons as well as part of the facility manual,” the sheriff’s department said in an emailed statement.

Make sure they can meet the October 24 voter registration deadline.

San Diego County Jails

San Diego County has one state penitentiary, the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, and several prison facilities:

  • East Mesa re-entry facility
  • George Bailey Detention Center
  • Las Colinas Detention and Re-entry Facility
  • San Diego Central Jail
  • South Bay Detention Center
  • Vista prison

Inmates of these prison facilities can vote unless they are serving a sentence for a crime. Prisoners in Donovan cannot vote as they are serving a state prison sentence.

3. Mail-in ballots are mailed to the voter via USPS to the address provided on the registration forms, whether that is residence or jail. If the incarcerated person does not have a household member to bring them a ballot mailed to a residential address, they can change their mailing address by requesting a ballot request form through a correctional counselor.

“It is a one-time use form and will not make the change permanent in their registry file,” ROV director Cynthia Paes said via email. “If they wish to make a permanent change in mailing address, they can indicate this on the ballot application form or fill out a new voter registration form.”

If a ballot was requested but the inmate was released before receiving it, they can still vote. You can go to any voting center in the county and request a provisional ballot.

4. Ballot papers sent to institutions are collected separately and handed over to the institution’s advisory service, which hands them over to the voter. Stationery is free and provided to inmates, the sheriff’s department said. Upon completion, ballots are returned to the ROV by each voter. If a voter hasn’t received their ballot, they can ask their correctional advisor to coordinate with the ROV to get one.

Nonprofit organizations help inmates vote

Some nonprofit organizations work with the prisons, ROV, and sheriff’s department to register incarcerated people to vote. The League of Women Voters partners with the Sheriff’s Department to help with voting. San Diego-based Pillars of the Community also works with the league to help inmates vote.

Robert Myers is an inside organizer at Pillars of the Community and is currently incarcerated at the George Bailey Detention Facility, a county jail. Part of his job is reaching out to people in prison and seeing if they’re interested in voting.

“What we’re trying to do is basically we write to the counselor and the counselor sends you a voter registration card if you qualify,” Myers said. “I’ll help the guys fill out the voter registration card and we’ll mail it in.”

Myers began campaigning in July 2022, helping more than 20 people fill out forms for their advisors to request voter registration cards.

Myers also plays an oversight role — making sure those who ask for registration cards and ballots actually get them. In August, he addressed Pillars about an issue where eight inmates were not receiving registration cards. Pillars contacted her legal partners and the League of Women Voters. The league reached out to ROV and asked them to provide the facility with more registration cards because counselors allegedly told inmates they didn’t have any.

Voter Registration Events

If your friend or family member is incarcerated at the East Mesa or Las Colinas Reentry Facility, they can register for an upcoming event. Kim Knox of the League of Women Voters said her organization will hold two registration events:

  • October 17 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the East Mesa Facility
  • October 21 from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. at the Las Colinas facility

The League of Women Voters also held registration events at three probation facilities in August and September.

Knox said registration events were held in more detention facilities before the pandemic.

Laila Aziz, operations manager at Pillars, said it is imperative that registration cards be mailed in a timely manner and the prison’s mail system can make this a challenge.

“If we register people to vote on the last day of registration, they will never get their ballots in time to vote through this county jail mail system. So their ballots won’t be postmarked on the day they can vote,” she said.

A sheriff’s department representative said they had not heard of any problems with providing inmate registration cards.

“People in our facilities receive mail almost every day. So it shouldn’t be any different,” the representative said. “If anyone feels they have not received their (registration) card, please let them check with MPs and/or advisers.”

Aziz said that having a voting center in the prisons on election day where inmates could cast provisional ballots would be a better system than having to apply through the counselors.

How to vote after completing a crime sentence

The right to vote is restored once someone has completed a crime. However, you must register again even if you were previously registered. Here’s how you can do it:

1. If you are unsure whether you can vote or not, you can use this poll from the Office of the Secretary of State to check.

2. You can register to vote through the Secretary of State’s website or fill out a registration card. You can obtain a registration card from the Secretary of State or the San Diego ROV. The ROV also conducts voter registration drives at community events across the county.

➡ For the online registration you need the following:

  • Your state driver’s license or ID card number
  • The last four digits of your social security number
  • Your date of birth

Just make sure the application is received or postmarked 15 days before Election Day to be able to vote. For the November 8 elections, the deadline is October 24.

3. Or they register to vote at any polling station on election day.

“Now that we have same-day registration, people can show up at any polling center by Election Day to register and vote on the same day,” ROV’s Paes said.

4. You can vote by mail or in person at a voting center. All active registered voters will start receiving absentee ballots from October 8th. Voters can start casting ballots from Oct. 10, when early voting begins.


🗳️ Mail-in ballots are now being mailed to all active California-registered voters 8 Oct. The last day you can register to vote is 24 Oct. (If voters miss this deadline, they can still register and vote in person at any polling center.) 8 Nov is national election day, but many polling centers are open before election day. The polling center and drop-off points close at 8:00 p.m. on polling day.

You can find more guides like this on the KPBS Voter Hub.

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