It's not easy letting prison inmates know they'll be eligible to vote if they get out by Election Day ... and can find a way to register even earlier.
"After a while, you start to get used to rejection," says Clyde Ledbetter Jr., a summer intern with the League of Young Voters. Ledbetter spent six hours in the Allegheny County Jail on Aug. 18, trying to reach visitors from a small table inside the jail's vestibule. He handed out literature on voting rights, registered visitors to vote and collected data from those already registered.
His vigil was part of a summer-long League campaign to publicize a 2000 change in state law: Ex-inmates in Pennsylvania are eligible to vote as soon as they leave prison, even if they are on probation or parole. The session was the second installment of a weekly jail-outreach program offered by the League, which tries to encourage wider electoral participation.
Another element of the League's campaign, an effort to advertise ex-prisoner voting rights inside Port Authority buses, has been put on hiatus. The transit agency has refused to run the ads, and on Aug. 18, the League and the local ACLU dropped their quest for a court injunction forcing the agency to reverse its decision. The League said that even if the authority changed its mind, there wasn't enough time to create the ads before the October voter-registration deadline. A suit to get PAT to accept the ads in the future is proceeding, however.
Meanwhile, League workers like Ledbetter are still attempting to get the word out ... or in.
On Aug. 18, visitor after visitor passed the League table. After a full Friday at the jail, only one visitor had filled out a voter-registration card. The previous week, said Ledbetter, saw only two registrations. But volunteers believe the information they're offering inside the jail is critical; Ledbetter recalls the disbelief of many he encountered as he trudged through city neighborhoods on an earlier League campaign.
While previous League outreach efforts have involved direct interaction with inmates, contact with visitors may also prove effective, Ledbetter believes. "Anything you can do, even if it's just a small thing, it makes a difference," he says. "I've talked to dozens of people who didn't know they could vote. People get excited when they learn they can vote again."
"I don't know too many inmates that know they can vote," says Lorraine Eberhardt of the North Side, visiting the jail. Unlike most visitors, she stopped at the table before heading in, and thanked Ledbetter on her way out. The person she was visiting was surprised to hear about this right, she said, and planned to pass along the word. So did Eberhardt: "I don't think that's common knowledge. Anybody I know, I'll tell."