Locked up, but not locked out of the ballot box

Thousands of eligible voters are in jails. Washington counties are looking at ways to get more of them to vote.

Snohomish County Jail. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Snohomish County Jail. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

OLYMPIA — Hundreds of eligible voters are locked up in the Snohomish County Jail every election. Most don’t cast a ballot.

For the past six years, county election officials have tried to get more to do so.

Working with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, a section on voting is included in the handbook given to new arrivals.

Flyers posted in jail modules 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.

Still, turnout has been microscopic.

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. Even fewer ballots have been turned in for primary and special elections.

Other counties are making similar efforts and getting similar results. And they’re paying for it on their own.

The state is set to chip in a little money for counties to do more and, theoretically, make greater strides.

Lawmakers tucked $2.5 million into the soon-to-be-signed supplemental state budget to increase turnout in jails in the August primary and November general elections.

The money will be routed through the Secretary of State’s Office. Counties can use it as they see fit. That could mean buying special voting equipment, conducting on-site voter registration drives or teaming with civic organizations to work on getting out the vote once ballots are available. Candidate forums inside a jail could be an option as well.

“We appreciate the fact that there’s been funding allotted. This money will help as we explore what we can do to reduce challenges for those individuals,” Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell said. “We’ll work with the sheriff’s team in the jail to see what more we can do in the areas of outreach and education.”

Counties receiving grants must craft post-election reports on what they did and how well it worked. Those are due to the Secretary of State by next February. State election officials will compile them along with their own recommendations for a report for lawmakers in June 2023.

Efforts to bolster voter participation in county jails have increased across the country in recent years. Often they coincide with passage of laws that restore voting rights for people convicted of felonies easier and faster.

Washington is one such place. As of Jan. 1, a person convicted of a felony will have their right to vote automatically restored, as long as they are not serving a sentence in prison.

The vast majority of those in county jails in Washington are not in that situation and thus eligible to vote. They may be awaiting a pre-trial proceeding, or trial, or serving a sentence for a misdemeanor, none of which prevents them from casting a ballot.

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

But most may not realize it. It can be confusing for them as well as jail employees.

“Some people don’t know due to a misunderstanding or misinformation,” said attorney Jaime Hawk, who is spearheading the ACLU’s push to increase voting in county jails.

Confusion contributes to fewer of them voting, she said.

Another challenge for election officials and voting rights activists is that the jail population changes daily. While some will be inside for the entirety of a voting period, many will not. Keeping track can require more time of staff than counties can afford.

Before the 2020 election, Hawk said she reached out to auditors and jail administrators in larger counties to assess how they planned to help people in jail cast ballots. She found their approaches varied. She started talking with the governor’s office about providing counties with money to step up their outreach and see what “best practices” emerge.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed $628,000 for 10 counties in his budget released in December. Lawmakers quadrupled the sum so potentially every interested county could get a grant.

“We want them to know they have the right to vote. We want them to have access to voter registration and voter education materials,” said Rashelle Davis, a policy advisor to the governor. “This is a way for us to help.”

Getting those behind bars engaged in the electoral process can improve the odds of them not becoming a repeat offender.

“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,” said Nicole Porter, senior director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice issues.

Porter, who reviewed programs in several states in a May 2020 report, said democracy benefits, too.

“Ensuring voting while incarcerated maintains continuity for electoral participation and supports lifelong voter participation,” she wrote. “Persons with strong connections to the community are more likely to have successful reentry following incarceration.”

Darya Farivar, director of public policy with Disability Rights Washington, has worked on making those held in the King County Jail aware of their rights. And since a “huge amount” have a disability, it means securing accessible voting devices, she said.

She hopes what’s learned this year will spur additional investments, because increasing access requires sustained focus.

“Jails and jail staff have a lot of work to do and this is not their top priority,” she said. “This is a call for the counties to take a look at their system and look for simple things they can do to increase access. This is just a start.”

Jordan Landry, 38, is visually impaired and serving time in the King County Jail. He said he voted in every election before entering jail. He has managed to keep casting ballots with the help of county employees and an accessible voting unit.

“I think what (state lawmakers) did cannot be understated. What they did was to acknowledge underrepresented communities of Americans,” he said. “If you make us aware, we will participate.”

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

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