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How to vote in jail or if you have a record

The San Diego County Sheriff Department's George Bailey Detention Facility is pictured on April 28, 2022.
Alexander Nguyen
The San Diego County Sheriff Department's George Bailey Detention Facility is pictured on April 28, 2022.

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in October, 2022, but it has been updated with the latest information for the Nov. 7, 2023 Special Election.

In some states, the right to vote is taken away forever if you've been convicted of a felony. That’s not the case in California. People who were formerly incarcerated for a felony have their voting rights restored. Those in jail and not serving a felony can also vote.

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

Who can — and can’t — vote

U.S. citizens 18 years or older can register to vote and vote in the upcoming Nov. 8 election under the following circumstances:

  • If you’re in county jail and not on your way to federal or state prison 
  • On parole
  • On probation
  • On mandatory supervision
  • On post-release community supervision
  • On federal supervised release
  • You’re a person with juvenile wardship adjudication

People on parole that had a felony conviction were banned from voting until Proposition 17 passed in 2020.

What’s the difference between jail and prison?

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

Jail: Jails are run by county sheriff departments and usually confine people with sentences of a year or less. The people normally in jails are charged with misdemeanors, awaiting trial or sentencing, or confined for civil matters like being in contempt of court. People serving felony sentences can also be confined in jails.

Prison: These are facilities that usually hold people serving felony sentences which can last years or a lifetime. There are both state prisons and federal prisons.

Source: Associated Press Styleguide

Persons who cannot vote or register to vote include those currently serving a state or federal felony prison sentence in the following places:

  • State prison
  • Federal prison
  • County jail or another type of correctional facility 

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

How to vote from jails

The San Diego Registrar of Voters (ROV) said it coordinates with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and its detention facilities prior to and during each election cycle. This includes coordinating pick-up and drop-off of issued ballots with correctional counselors at each facility.

“We send out to our detention facility contacts: important election dates, updates, flyers, voter registration deadline dates, updated voter registration training materials and we also replenish registration forms if detention facilities need them,” said Cynthia Paes, director of ROV, in an email.


Here are the necessary steps to register to vote and vote while in jail:

1. Determine if they’re already registered to vote. You can check their registration status on the Secretary of State’s website if you’re not sure. If the address that’s on the registration is a residential one, family members, friends or someone within their household can bring the ballot to the incarcerated person.

2. If they’re not registered, the incarcerated person will need to request a voter registration card from the facility’s counseling office. The inmate will need to fill out a form as part of making the request.

“Information on how to request a voter registration card is part of the orientation video that is played daily in all the jails as well as part of the facility handbook,” the sheriff’s department said in an emailed statement.

Make sure they’re able to meet voter registration deadlines.

San Diego County jails

San Diego County has a state prison, Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, and several jail facilities:

  • East Mesa Reentry Facility 
  • George Bailey Detention Facility 
  • Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility
  • San Diego Central Jail
  • South Bay Detention Facility
  • Vista Detention Facility

Inmates at these jail facilities can vote unless they’re serving time for a felony. Prisoners at Donovan cannot vote since they’re serving a state prison sentence.

3. Mail-in ballots are sent to the voter via USPS on the address indicated on registration forms whether that be the residence or jail. If the incarcerated person doesn’t have a household member to bring them a ballot sent to a residential address, then they can make a change to their mailing address by asking for a ballot request form through a correctional counselor.

“It’s a one-time-use form and will not make the change permanently to their registration file,” said Cynthia Paes, director of ROV, via email. “If they want to make a permanent mailing address change, they can note it on the ballot request form or fill out a new voter registration form.”

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

4. Ballots sent to facilities are collected separately and provided to the facility’s counseling staff who then hand them to the voter. Writing utensils are free and provided to incarcerated people, the sheriff’s department said. When completed, ballots are mailed back to the ROV by each voter. If a voter didn’t receive their ballot, they can ask their correctional counselor to coordinate with the ROV to get one.

Nonprofits helping inmates vote

Some nonprofit organizations partner with the jails, ROV and sheriff’s department to help register incarcerated people to vote. The League of Women Voters has a partnership with the sheriff’s department to assist with voting. San Diego-based Pillars of the Community also partners with the League on helping inmates vote.

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

“What we try to do is basically we write (to) the counselor, and the counselor sends you a voter registration card if you qualify,” Myers said. “I help the guys fill out the voter registration card, and we send it in.”

Myers started canvassing in July 2022 and helped more than 20 people fill out forms to their counselors to request voter registration cards.

Myers also plays a part in oversight — making sure those who ask for registration cards and ballots actually receive them. In August (2022), he raised an issue of eight inmates not receiving registration cards to Pillars. Pillars contacted their 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.

Laila Aziz, director of operations at Pillars, said it’s imperative that registration cards are sent in a timely manner, and the jail's mailing system can make that challenging.

“If we register people to vote on the last day of registration, they will never get their ballot through that mail system at the county jail in time to vote. So their voter ballot will not be postmarked on the day that it allows them to vote,” she said.

A representative for the Sheriff’s department said they hadn’t heard of issues with providing registration cards to inmates.

“The folks within our facilities receive mail almost daily. So this should not be any different," the representative said. "If anyone feels as though they have not received the (registration) card, please have them check with the deputies and/or the counselors.”

Aziz said that having a voting center within the jails on Election Day where inmates could cast provisional ballots would be a better system than having to request through the counselors.

How to vote after finishing a felony sentence

The right to vote is restored once someone finishes a felony sentence. However, they must re-register even if they’ve been registered before. Here’s how they can do that:

1. If it’s uncertain whether or not they can vote, they can take this survey from the Secretary of State’s office to verify.

2. They can register to vote via the Secretary of State’s website or fill out a registration card. They can get a registration card from the Secretary of State or San Diego’s ROV. The ROV is also doing voter registration drives at community events throughout the county.

➡ To register online you will need the following:

  • Your state driver's license or identification 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 prior to Election Day to be able to vote.

3. Or they register to vote at any voting center the day of the election. "Now that we have same-day registration, folks can show up at any vote center up until Election Day to register and vote on the same day," Paes of the ROV said.

4. They can vote by mail or in-person at a voting center. All active registered voters will begin to receive vote-by-mail ballots starting on Oct. 8. Voters can start dropping off ballots on Oct. 10 at ballot drop off boxes. Early voting is available at the Registrar of Voters starting Oct. 9. Other vote centers will open Oct. 28.


🗳️ Vote-by-mail ballots begin to be sent to all active California registered voters starting Oct. 8. The last day to register to vote is Oct. 23. (If voters miss this deadline they can still register and vote in person at any vote center location.) Nov. 7 is the election day for special elections in District 4, for Chula Vista City Attorney and Fallbrook Public Utility District and Rainbow Municipal Water District, but many vote centers are open prior to election day. Vote center and drop-off locations close at 8 p.m. on election day.

Find more guides like this one in KPBS' Voter Hub.