By Mae Nagusky | Community News Service
Burlington resident Jason Trombley, 41, said he’s never voted — it hasn’t ever been a priority.
From 2019 to 2021, while Trombley was incarcerated at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, he said he was interested in casting a ballot. But, when he sat down to do it, the process to get from checking a box to actually having that vote counted felt too onerous.
“It was kind of a pain the way they do it. They just had our case worker give us an absentee ballot and we had to fill it out and mail it,” he said. “Everything is up to you. You even have to buy your own envelope to mail it out half the time. It’s crazy.”
Vermont is one of two states, plus the District of Columbia, that allows incarcerated people to vote. But data show just a fraction of those who are incarcerated use that right.
“Just having the right to vote is not the end of the story,” said Ariel White, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Even after people have that right, they might not manage to use it, or they might not decide to use it for a variety of reasons.”
In late 2021, White co-authored a study that examined how often people in Vermont vote while incarcerated. She found the gap between the general public and those who are incarcerated was huge.
In 2016, the data showed about 13% of incarcerated Vermonters voted, compared to 65% of all eligible residents. While turnout is historically lower during midterm elections, in 2018, they found only about 8% of incarcerated individuals voted — compared to 55% of the general public.
That’s despite Vermont taking steps to try and make voting while incarcerated accessible, she said.
“Vermont is already doing a lot of things that other places don’t do, and we still see these very low numbers,” White said.
Organizations like the League of Women Voters and Disability Rights Vermont are allowed into prisons 90 days before election day to talk about voting with incarcerated individuals.
Tina Hagen, with Disability Rights Vermont, said in her experience visiting correctional facilities, she heard a lot of misinformation.
“We found that the message wasn’t getting out there to prisoners,” Hagen said. “And so there was a lot of misinformation when a prisoner would ask a staff person within corrections about voting — it was just assumed you couldn’t vote because you were in prison.”
Hagen and others try to make it more clear by explaining the election process and how to request an absentee ballot. Some groups also register people to vote.
Chris Barton is the restorative systems administrator for the Vermont Department of Corrections. He says DOC tries to remain neutral when it comes to voting.
“We don’t incentivize it in any way, or disincentivize it in any way,” Barton said. “So we want it to be as free of process as possible without correctional control. We do everything we can to make folks aware, and then it’s their responsibility to follow through.”
But, he said, there are lots of reasons why the follow-through may not happen.
“With any voter engagement process, the more barriers there are to voting, the more difficult or the less participation that will happen,” he said. “So, just having an absentee ballot may prevent some folks from voting.”
That idea — that more barriers lowers participation — affects everyone, according to Alec Ewald, an associate professor in the political science department at the University of Vermont.
Ewald points out that this effect is especially pronounced if you’re incarcerated.
“So, if you think of somebody who is incarcerated, voting for them would be even more costly, because acquiring information about how to do it, ‘how do I register,'” he said. “And then there’s all these other questions about when election time comes around, how will I decide how to vote on the issues if my access to information is really limited.”
Ewald said some people who are incarcerated may also be turned off from voting due to their past experiences with the government.
“Their experience with the government is that all it does is police them and mistreat them, and so they say, ‘To hell with it, I don’t want anything to do with the government. It does nothing for me, it only does things to me, and there’s nothing I can gain from participating in this sham activity,'” he said.
Ewald said Vermont could boost its voting participation inside its correction facilities by encouraging more conversation about politics and the civic process.
“People have opinions, and I think having those conversations might lead to more people taking an interest in voting,” he said.
Ariel White, the MIT professor who recently conducted a study on voter participation, said it’s crucial to hear from those directly impacted by the criminal justice system, especially at a time when lawmakers consider policy changes.
“I worry about the loss of that knowledge, that expertise, that insight, when we’re making policies going forward,” she said.
Jason Trombley, who was incarcerated in Newport, said from his perspective, even just making the process easier — bypassing the mail for example — could help.
“If they could have it set up so you could just go to your case worker’s office and do it online or something, that would be the easiest way or do it,” he said.
The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.