A seemingly simple question at a Bernie Sanders town hall last spring set off a debate new to prime time: Should prisoners be allowed to vote? Sanders said yes—his home state of Vermont as well as Maine are the only states to give all prisoners that right. Later, Joe Biden said no.
Yet in a country awash in political polling, the views of those who are most affected remained a mystery: the 2.3 million people behind bars. Do they want to vote? If given the right, who would they vote for? What issues do they care about most? No one’s ever really asked.
This is why Slate partnered with the Marshall Project to conduct a first-of-its-kind political survey inside prisons and jails across the country. Now that criminal justice is a campaign issue and many states are restoring voting rights to those convicted of felonies, we asked thousands of incarcerated people across the country for their opinions on criminal justice reform, which political party they identify with, and which presidential candidate they’d support. We heard from more than 8,000 people. Here’s what they said:
• A plurality of white respondents back President Donald Trump, undercutting claims that people in prison would overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.
• Long stretches in prison appear to be politicizing: The more time respondents spend in prison, the more motivated they are to vote, the more they discuss politics, and the more likely their opinions are to evolve.
• Perspectives change inside prison. Republicans behind bars back policies like legalizing marijuana that are less popular with GOP voters on the outside; Democrats inside prison are less enthusiastic about an assault weapons ban than Democrats at large.