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'I actually feel good like I helped the community': People held at Louisville jail cast votes in midterm elections

Before a major push this year, jail leaders said many people incarcerated pre-trial didn't know they could vote or faced major barriers.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Ahead of Tuesday's midterm elections, thousands of Kentuckians voted by absentee ballot. This year, that includes several dozen people incarcerated at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections (LMDC). 

Under state law, people being held pre-trial who are otherwise eligible to vote, can do so.

Dr. Maria Leyderman, the jail's chief psychologist, said in past elections, many people at the jail weren't registered, didn't know they could vote or were prevented by circumstance. 

“There were barriers to even getting access to stamps or to register," Leyderman said, citing internet access and having identification as other challenges. 

In October, Metro Council passed a resolution aimed at addressing those barriers, encouraging registration, education and supports to make voting at LMDC easier. 

Inside the jail, Leyderman and a team of community volunteers rounded the facility, informing people about their rights and helping in the registration process. 

“Really the focus has been on accessibility and education and offering the opportunity to participate in the process," she said. 

Leyderman said the County Clerk delivered 120 absentee ballots, each representing a voter who was still at LMDC at the time of absentee voting. The ballots came with pre-stamped envelopes to make mailing simple. 

Of those 120, Leyderman said around 80 returned their ballots. In years past, she said only a few people would vote. 

Kelvonnie Harris was one of those to fill out a ballot for the very first time. 

“I thought it was a trick, I really did I thought it was a trick," Harris said of his reaction learning he could vote. “It’s a lot going on right now so I feel like every vote counts. We’re trying to make the city and the state better, every vote counts. So it meant a lot to know I had a voice in that.”

Community volunteers also delivered nonpartisan voter guides to help people at LMDC learn about the races and candidates. 

“I wanted someone who was going to be fair with everything, with safety, with the jail," new voter Thomas Embry said.

Keyius Malone said voting made him feel like he had an impact. 

"I actually feel good like I helped the community and helped other people who didn't get to vote, because I know my vote matters just like everybody's vote matters," he said. 

Leyderman said that feeling is the point of the efforts. She said voting while incarcerated can encourage a sense of community and commitment once people are released. 

“A jail shouldn’t function as a warehouse," Leyderman said. "It should be a place where we are able offer services or things that will improve outcomes and voting is one of the most important ways people become connected and integrated into our communities.”

Leyderman said the long term goal is to make the jail an in-person voter site to further remove barriers and increase engagement. 

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