A ballot box has been installed at the Clark County Jail to allow eligible inmates to vote in the upcoming election, but advocates say more needs to be done to ensure the jail’s inmate population is aware of its rights.
The ballot box, provided by Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey, is located in the jail’s mailroom, according to a Clark County Sheriff’s Office written directive.
Sheriff Chuck Atkins said in an email there are also posters in the jail, information on how to register to vote, forms from the auditor’s office to register and a system to deliver ballots to the population.
Atkins said he has been working with advocates, particularly the American Civil Liberties Union and local attorneys who inquired about voting, to ensure those held at the jail can exercise their right to vote.
Jaime Hawk, the legal strategy director of ACLU Washington’s Smart Justice campaign, said with the exception of King County, which has staff whose jobs are to increase awareness around the issue, Clark and most other counties around the state should do more to raise awareness and remove inmates’ barriers to vote.
“The vast majority of (jail inmates) are eligible to vote and don’t realize it,” Hawk said.
Every registered voter in Washington automatically receives a mail-in ballot with prepaid postage. And, unlike in some states, past felonies or outstanding legal financial obligations no longer preclude anyone from participating in an election.
However, inmates currently being held in prison on a felony conviction or still under supervision by the Department of Corrections are barred from voting. Those disqualifications are listed on registration forms delivered to the jail, Kimsey said.
Often, jail inmates and people who have completed their community supervision believe they can’t vote until they pay off their court-related financial obligations. That law hasn’t existed for a decade, Hawk said.
The auditor said he did not have data on the number of eligible inmates at the jail. He said the majority of pre-trial inmates who are U.S. citizens, at least 18 years old and have been a county resident for 60 days should be able to vote, barring they’re not under Department of Corrections supervision on a separate case.
As of Friday, there were 449 inmates being housed at the Clark County Jail. Atkins said 70 percent of them are pre-trial inmates.
Crosscut reported that the majority of King County’s 1,400 jail inmates are eligible to vote, and although experts do not believe the work being done inside jails to inform inmates of their rights will tip any races, it’s not part of any campaign’s strategy to win. Rather, for inmates who have minimal choice behind bars and may feel isolated from society, the option of whether or not to vote is empowering.
Kimsey said the county wants to enable every eligible person to register to vote and cast a ballot “and that includes people who are in the county jail.”
He did not have information about whether any of the jail’s inmates requested to register this election cycle. He said numbers on the county’s registered voters are compiled using people’s residential addresses. If someone is at the jail, they may use it or the last place they lived as their address, he said.
The jail’s procedures dictate that if an inmate is eligible to vote but is not registered, they may request a voter registration application by contacting the county auditor or official who administers elections.
The county is hand-delivering ballots to inmates who request them, the auditor said.
“For several years, we’ve had an ongoing effort with the sheriff’s office and developing practices and policies that we can facilitate inmates registering to vote, receiving their ballots and returning it to the elections office,” Kimsey said.
When a jail staff member is presented with a ballot from an inmate, they will instruct the inmate to seal the privacy envelope and then the ballot envelope. The staff member accepts the sealed ballot and “upon completion of their security round or duties that maintain the safe and orderly operation of the facility, will immediately deliver the ballot” to the box in the mailroom, according to the sheriff’s office.
The ballot box in the mailroom is under a camera to protect staff members from accusations of misconduct, according to the jail.
Hawk said Kimsey and jail officials were responsive to her inquiries and some suggestions. The ACLU provided posters about voting for the jail and asked that they be put up on all levels of the facility. The organization also offered to print copies of a flyer that explains how inmates’ financial obligations should not prevent them from voting, and asked that the flyers be given to everyone in the jail. It’s unclear if that happened, Hawk said.
She also reached out to the Clark County Indigent Defense office and other defense attorneys in the area to see if they’d contact their clients and speak to them about voting, which has been an effective strategy for other counties. Hawk also requested that the auditor begin keeping track of the inmates who request and follow through with registering to vote, but the county responded that it lacks the resources to do so, a response cited by other counties.
The ballot box is a step in the right direction, Hawk said, but in the future, a polling place within jails where inmates can register and vote would be preferred.