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There are places in America where citizens cannot vote. It’s where absentee and mail-in ballots are unnecessary and voting precincts are nonexistent because votes don’t count. 

Incarcerated people at San Quentin State Prison, still have a voice even though it’s not heard by the Electoral College. Three weeks before the presidential election, 170 ballots — handwritten on notebook paper — were smuggled into the West Block of the prison with a message that said, “We have to improvise.” They were distributed after prisoners failed to receive 1,600 simulated ballots sent in by advocacy group Solitary Watch. 

Over a two-day period, 73 of the handmade ballots were passed out, collected and tallied. Statistically, they only represented about 10% of West Block’s inmate population, so the results were more of a random sample of the inmates’ votes. Nevertheless, the results showed that most voted Democrat. 

Joe Biden received 61 votes, and Donald trump received 10 votes. One voter wrote in “Freedom Liberty” as his party, and another was undecided. 

The men who voted in the West Block made up a cross section of the prison community in terms of age, race and length of time incarcerated. Their split in politics was similar to that of voters outside. 

“Biden cares about the American people and COVID,” a voter wrote on a ballot. Another inmate, who circled Biden on his ballot: “I love Trump. He’s a beaut. He changed the whole game being president, but Biden is better for us. He’s against prison.” 

As was the case outside, there were many, who were critical of the current president. “The nation is failing due to the fact of his actions,” one Biden supporter wrote. The words “Nazi/KKK” and “White Supremacy” were scrawled around Trump’s name on another vote for Biden. 

Although election returns for Biden outpolled Trump six votes to one, there were some that voted for Trump. “It’s beneficial for my investment in relation to taxable returns — more money for retirement,” one Trump voter wrote. 

(Kevin wrote another version of this story with Juan Haines for the Guardian)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Kevin D. Sawyer

Kevin D. Sawyer is a contributing writer and the associate editor for San Quentin News and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is an African American native of San Francisco and has written numerous short stories, memoirs, essays, poems and journals. Some of his work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction, a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism, and part of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. Prior to incarceration, Kevin worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years.