Bexar County Sheriff's Office & Detention Center
County officials say they'll push for the addition of a polling site within the Bexar County Adult Detention Center. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Members of the Bexar County Commissioners Court, along with a coalition of voting rights activist groups, are asking the county Elections Department to put a voting location in the county jail this November.

Roughly three quarters of the 4,666 inmate population in the Bexar County Jail has yet to be convicted of a crime and is eligible to vote. Inmates in the jail typically rely on mail-in voting, a process voting rights advocates say excludes people who are arrested after the deadline to request a mail-in ballot.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Ronald Tooke, president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County. “Anybody that’s eligible to vote should be able to vote, no matter what the circumstances are.”

This year voting rights activists are working to open voting locations in jails across the state, including Dallas County, according to the Dallas Morning News.

While the idea has the support of Bexar County Commissioners Tommy Calvert and Justin Rodriguez, who plan to bring it up at their meeting Tuesday, it comes as the county’s Elections Department is already feeling stressed about a November election officials say could see unusually high turnout.

At a meeting of the Bexar County Elections Board earlier this week, Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said the county needed to reduce the number of Election Day voting centers to consolidate her department’s resources at the busier locations. Callanen did not respond to a request for comment Friday about adding a voting location at the jail.

Harris County has had a voting location in its jail since 2021, and its elections staff has consulted with Bexar County Commissioners on how it might work to do the same here.

Darryl Blackburn, a Harris County elections official who worked on his county’s jail effort, said inmates who qualify for mail-in ballots continued to vote that way, while inmates who are booked after the deadline used the voting center in the jail. The jail location is only used on Election Day, not for early voting.

Like other voting centers, voting machines at the jails are required to be open to the county’s entire voting population. To make that possible, Blackburn said his team relies on the help of Sheriffs’ deputies to keep inmates separate from members of the public.

“From an elections administration perspective, it’s run the exact same way as every other location,” he said. “It’s not any more of a burden than any other location, especially if you have the cooperation of the sheriffs.”

Sheriff Javier Salazar, who is a member of the Elections Board, has been working closely with MOVE on the efforts to bring a voting location into jail.

Having a voting location inside the detention center means the roughly 800 jail employees, including 600 Sheriff’s deputies, would also have access to vote on site.

Tooke said offering a voting location at the jail could also solve a major problem for staff members who have been working extra long shifts due to severe personnel shortages.

“They’re doing 18-hour shifts… some are doing five of those shifts a week,” Tooke said of the deputies. “The actual reality of them voting is probably not [good], so this [would] definitely give them a good opportunity to vote.”

Aaron Arguello, a San Antonio-based organizer for the voting advocacy group MOVE Texas, which is pushing for jail voting centers across the state, said their effort in Bexar County has benefitted greatly from the support of law enforcement.

MOVE and another voting access group, Radical Registrars, already have a long-standing relationship with Salazar and the sheriff’s deputies, who they partner with to run a civics class in the jail.

Plenty of other political interests are also competing over where the county should place its limited voting resources this fall. The Elections Board will work with Commissioners Court to decide the final locations in the coming weeks.

“It’s not a problem of possible or impossible, but of the combined political will of the parties involved,” said Arguello.

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.