In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court opined that pretrial detainees maintain their right to vote, and in Texas, you do not lose that right if you are convicted of a misdemeanor offense. Nevertheless, localities and the state government have failed to effectively mobilize the necessary resources to create sufficient voting access for incarcerated, eligible voters to cast a ballot during elections. Bexar County officials have the opportunity to stand out as leaders in promoting equitable voting access in our jails.
In this period of mass incarceration, inmates are treated as second-class citizens in many regards, and voting rights are no exception. The absence of adequate jail voting access to those currently incarcerated denies the rights of those yet to be convicted and held in pretrial detention. A recent County Jail Population Report stated that the Bexar County jail’s population is around 67% pretrial detainees, most of whom are eligible to vote. This is a group of intentionally excluded voters with a unique relationship to our political systems, and a unique perspective of the political issues currently being widely discussed.
The foundation for a jail-based polling location already exists in Bexar County. Commissioners like Justin Rodriguez and Tommy Calvert have led the way on voting rights reforms. Sheriff Javier Salazar has introduced civics classes into the jail. County officials have the opportunity to further cement their reputations as voting rights champions by bringing a polling location to the Bexar County Jail.
Jail-based polling locations have been successfully implemented elsewhere. Cook County became the first county in the country to provide a polling location in their jail in 2017, due to efforts by Chicago Votes, allowing 40% of detainees to cast a ballot in the 2020 General Election. Recently, work spearheaded by Project Orange led to Harris County implementing the first jail-based polling location in Texas, leading the way for progressive reform in a state infamous for voter suppression. Now is the perfect time for Bexar County to follow suit and ensure that all eligible incarcerated residents can fully exercise their constitutional right to vote. Such a commitment comes with the support of MOVE Texas, Texas Rising, Radical Registrars, ACT 4 SA, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Organizing Project, All of Us or None Texas, and the Texas Center for Justice and Equity.
As it currently stands, the only option available for eligible incarcerated voters is voting by mail. This is insufficient for multiple reasons. Thanks to the restrictive provisions of SB 1, mail-in ballots in Texas are being rejected at record rates. During the March 2022 primary election, more than 24,000 voters had their ballots rejected, and the process of curing a rejected ballot is both difficult and time-sensitive. To correct a ballot in jail would require even tighter coordination between Jail administration and Election offices to ensure votes are ultimately counted.
Before accepting the mail-in ballot option as sufficient for those who are incarcerated, we should also have a clearer picture of how many inmates actually make ballot requests. If low numbers are encountered, we should demand greater effort at pro-active and well-resourced civic engagement inside the walls of the jail. Finally, there is currently no process in place for those detained and charged pretrial after the mail-in ballot deadline to access a ballot at all. An equitable system of voting in the jail would not leave entire groups out of the process, based on their being detained later than others.
All of Us or None Texas Executive Director Steve Huerta, a formerly incarcerated activist and coalition member, makes the need for jail-based voting emphatically clear. He states, “confinement and detention in a jail pending trial does not disqualify you from voting. We have an obligation to ensure that all those that are eligible to vote are provided an opportunity to cast their vote, including people in jail. Our goal is to act as a bridge and institutionalize this process to ensure that the rights of people in jail to register and vote is a shared task of jail staff, election officials, and community partners. Voting is how we stay connected to our communities and is an intricate part of effective reentry.”
Despite widespread support by county officials, including jail administrators and County Commissioners, the Bexar County Elections Department hasn’t responded to recommendations for a polling location within the jail. Nor has the elections office responded to an invite by jail staff and the coalition leading on jail-based voting to participate in a walk-through of the jail. This lack of urgency to ensure eligible voters are able to access a ballot leaves voting rights activists wanting for an election administrator more committed to expanding voting access.
Unfortunately, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen has resisted efforts to expand voting access and in 2020, despite expectations of increased voter turnout, only added 18 polling locations after an order from a federal judge. Now, citing staffing shortages, Callanen and the Elections Department are proposing cutting the number of voting centers from the 300 locations used in the November 2020 election to 258 for the 2022 midterms.
The question of a polling location in the Bexar County Jail is not one of feasibility or legal precedent, but rather one of political will. By failing to provide equitable access to the ballot box, we are intentionally leaving out eligible voters in jails, signaling their vote matters less. When individuals have been stripped of their sovereignty as a result of over-policing and reluctance for expanded arrest diversion programs, it’s crucial to protect the rights they do have. We must commit to providing voting access to those eligible in the face of backlash from those who wish to silence the voices of justice-involved individuals. Our county officials have the opportunity to set an example for more Texas counties to protect and secure incarcerated individuals’ constitutionally protected rights.