Catherine Berwicks loads ballots into a tray after scanning them at the Snohomish County Elections Ballot Processing Center on Aug. 4, 2020 in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Catherine Berwicks loads ballots into a tray after scanning them at the Snohomish County Elections Ballot Processing Center on Aug. 4, 2020 in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Lawmakers push to boost voting in county jails across the state

A House bill envisions an approach similar to what’s been happening in the Snohomish County Jail for several years.

OLYMPIA — A bill making its way through the state House would require every county auditor in Washington to craft a plan to provide those behind bars with ballots, pamphlets and other resources they may need to participate in elections.

Counties must adopt jail voting plans by next January and update them regularly under House Bill 1174, which is awaiting action in the House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee.

Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell and Sheriff Adam Fortney support the bill. It largely codifies what’s gone on locally the past seven years.

Flyers posted in modules of the Snohomish County Jail each election contain information on voter eligibility and registration, how to obtain a ballot and deadlines for turning them in. Voter pamphlets are delivered and a secure drop box for ballots is brought in, as well.

“This is something our agency has supported and implemented for many years inside the Snohomish County jail and we will continue to do so,” Fortney said in an email.

Turnout has been low.

Last year, eight people voted in the August primary and nine cast ballots in November, according to data from the Snohomish County Auditor’s Office.

Presidential elections draw the most interest. Twenty-seven ballots got pulled from the jail drop box in the 2020 presidential election. At the time, there were roughly 480 people in custody, a little more than half the jail’s capacity. In 2016, when the population was much larger, 14 ballots were cast.

“Really the only challenge we have with our voting program is gaining the interest of the inmates to vote,” Fortney said. “Often times their focus is their family members, their children, their pets, employment, getting bail, upcoming court appearances, etc. and voting is generally a low priority on their to-do list.”

Under the bill, jail voting plans must detail how election and jail officials will help incarcerated people register to vote or update their registration, obtain and cast ballots and receive nonpartisan information about candidates including voter pamphlets.

It ensures election officials can meet with those behind bars. And it says candidates must be able to campaign in jails if they request it.

A proposed amendment from Rep. Sam Low, R-Lake Stevens, requires the state cover any costs of complying incurred by the auditor or sheriff’s office.

Efforts to bolster voting in county jails have increased across the country in recent years.

One reason is research shows participating in the electoral process can improve the odds of people not becoming repeat offenders.

“Voting is part of a range of social behaviors that have been documented to reduce the rate of return to prison. The evidence is very strong,” Nicole Porter, senior director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, said in an interview last year. The Sentencing Project is a national nonprofit engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice issues.

The vast majority of those in county jails in Washington are not aware they are eligible to vote. They may be awaiting a pretrial proceeding, or trial, or serving a sentence for a misdemeanor, none of which prevents them from casting a ballot.

Effective in 2022, a person’s right to vote will be restored automatically as long as they are not currently serving a state prison sentence of total confinement, according to the Office of the Secretary of State.

As long as a county jail inmate is a state resident, a U.S. citizen and at least 18 years old, they have a right to vote.

Giving them a chance to meet with election officials to learn about the process may ultimately spur them to participate.

“Democracy works best when all eligible voters regardless of their circumstances have access to voting,” Fell said. “Direct access to someone who can answer questions and clarify eligibility requirements is an important component of all our voter outreach programs.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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