HOUSTON — Damien Lewis had been detained in the Harris County Jail for a week. Other than the one hour a day he was allowed to walk around indoors and trips to court, he had been under quarantine and hadn’t left his cell.
But on the day of the Texas primary earlier this month, a jail staff member escorted him down to a hallway on the jail’s first floor, which was lined with eight voting machines.
Without leaving the jail, Lewis, a Northside, Houston resident who was facing charges for driving under the influence, was able to cast a ballot in person.
“Who says you can’t vote in jail?” Lewis said, after spending a few minutes marking his ballot, straining his hand through handcuffs to reach the touch screen voting machine.
The Harris County Jail is one of just a few around the country that offer polling places for incarcerated people who are eligible to cast a ballot. In recent years, jails in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., have also introduced polling places for those incarcerated on Election Day, offering the right to vote to thousands of people who are typically disenfranchised because of their circumstances.
Democrats in states including Massachusetts and Tennessee have attempted to pass legislation to expand jail-based voting, but they’ve been largely met with opposition across the country from Republicans, who use the threat of voter fraud to oppose expanding ballot access.
Harris County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Phillip Bosquez, who helped coordinate the polling place, said that he’d like more incarcerated people to vote in person. Just 13 people cast an in-person ballot on Election Day, according to election judges, but he’s proud that his facility is experimenting with offering the option.
“We don’t feel like we should take their rights away before they’re convicted,” he said.
Expanding the ballot to jails
The Harris County Jail houses an average of 9,000 people each day, and across the country, roughly 700,000 people are held in jails at any given point.
The vast majority are eligible to vote because they are awaiting trial or have not been convicted of a felony. But for most, being incarcerated during an election means missing out on voting because jail administrators don’t know how or don’t have the resources to facilitate voting.
As a result, minority communities are disproportionately affected and shut out of the democratic process. Almost half of people in jail nationally are Black or Latino, according to the Sentencing Project.
But advocacy groups like Houston Justice have been trying to change that. In 2021, the group opened a polling place in the county jail for the first time in collaboration with Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.
“We operate the largest county jail in Texas and many of those entrusted into our care are pre-trial detainees who have not yet been convicted of a crime,” Gonzalez said when introducing the initiative last year. “It’s our collective duty to ensure that the sacred right to participate in our democratic process is not lost for those who are eligible to cast their ballot.”
On Texas primary day on March 1, there were 26 people in the Harris County Jail eligible to vote, according to jail staff. Though detainees have the option to vote by mail under Texas law, there is an 11-day gap between the deadline to submit an application requesting a mail-in ballot and Election Day.
As a result, anyone brought to the jail during that time frame, like Lewis, is unable to cast a ballot unless there’s an in-person option.
By the end of the day, 13 men in the jail decided to vote in person. All 13 chose a Democratic ballot, according to Jemario Bibbs, the Democrats’ election judge for the jail’s polling location.
“Being able to have Harris County Jail as a polling location is a product of years of advocacy and work by organizations across the county,” said Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria. “Our office is honored to provide an opportunity to enfranchise voters in the Harris County Jail.”
How Houston made it happen
Durrel Douglas, founder and executive director of Houston Justice, said the group launched the effort to open a polling place in the Harris County Jail because it was clear there wasn’t going to be any movement in Texas’ Republican-controlled legislature on jail-based voting.
Instead, advocates decided to make it an administrative move at the county level in majority-Democratic Harris County. The county has also led Texas in recent years on other innovative approaches to voting rights, including drive-through voting and 24-hour voting during the 2020 presidential election.
“We’re not changing any laws here,” said Douglas, who has previously worked as a prison guard. “They have not been disenfranchised, so let’s work with the counties individually and make this easier on them and do it that way.”
Douglas started Project Orange, named for the orange jumpsuits incarcerated people wear in the Harris County Jail, and started talking with Sheriff Gonzalez about coming to the jail to register people to vote.
But Douglas realized that registration would not help those brought into the facility too late for a mail-in ballot. Voting activists began pushing Gonzalez to allow in-person voting in the facility.
The polling place has now been in the jail for two elections and Douglas said it’s largely been a success, though it’s still a test run for the general election, when interest and turnout will likely be higher.
“It was a very rewarding experience to expand democracy to people who should have had that right all along,” Douglas said.
The hardest part of the process, he said, was the jail’s confiscation of incarcerated people’s IDs when they are booked, because photo IDs are required to vote under Texas law.
People without IDs, like incarcerated people, can fill out a reasonable impediment declaration, claiming they have a valid reason for not having an ID.
But, Douglas explained, the form makes a voter select a reason why they don’t have an ID (“Lost or stolen” or “Lack of birth certificate or other documents needed to obtain acceptable form of photo ID,” for example), but the form doesn’t have an option for someone who is detained and doesn’t have access to their ID.
As a result, some incarcerated people were hesitant, believing that checking the wrong box on the form could lead to a criminal penalty, especially after the high-profile prosecutions of Crystal Mason and Hervis Rogers in Texas, who were charged with felonies for allegedly illegally voting with a criminal record.
“There were some guys who didn’t want to do it because they didn’t want to get an extra charge,” Douglas said.
Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a national group focused on reducing incarceration that publishes reports on jail-based voting, said those feelings are justified.
“This is going to be an issue in improving the administrative access to voting for incarcerated residents, particularly when we’re successful at ending felony disenfranchisement, but also in the midst of this era where the Texas attorney general and other voter suppressive elected officials are actively prosecuting the most marginalized, including people in criminal custody,” said Porter.
Most jails across the country do not help their detainees vote, though the vast majority are eligible. Counties that attempt to facilitate in-person voting, or even voting by mail, are the exception.
North Carolina law permits incarcerated individuals to vote so long as they are not serving a felony sentence. A page on the state Board of Elections website explains the rules and how jailed individuals may obtain an absentee ballot.
In Illinois, lawmakers passed a bill in 2019 requiring election officials in counties with populations over 3 million to work with the county jail to ease in-person voting. So far only Cook County, home to Chicago, fits the population requirements and operates a polling place in the jail. In smaller counties, jail staff are required to facilitate absentee voting.
In the 2020 primary, more than a third of the 5,300 people detained in the Cook County Jail voted, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Los Angeles County and Washington, D.C., also make in-person voting possible in their jails.
Advocates are pushing for more counties to open polling locations inside jails, including elsewhere in Texas.
In other states, some lawmakers are trying to require certain counties to permit in-person voting.
Legislation considered in Tennessee would require counties that meet a population requirement, which now just includes Davidson County, home to Nashville, to operate a polling place inside jails.
In Massachusetts, proposed legislation would protect access to the ballot for eligible individuals in state jails.
Porter said the efforts are ongoing, but she’s nervous to detail plans because of opposition she thinks advocates will face from conservatives, who will use the pretext of voter fraud to stop them.
“This is being expanded across the country because of the success in Cook County,” Porter said. “This work is happening, but it also concerns me to give a road map to the people on the other side who are actively working to suppress votes because of whatever misguided rhetoric they use.”
Douglas said that based on the success in Harris County, he’s hopeful about jail-based voting expanding in Texas.
“It has an impact on reducing recidivism, reducing crime, and really getting people invested in the process,” he said.
Primary day at the jail
In the narrow hallway in the Harris County Jail where voting machines were lined up on Election Day, multiple election judges helped with voting.
Bibbs, the Democratic election judge for the jail polling location, said he intentionally chose to work there. Bibbs just graduated from law school and plans to work in civil rights law, so he wants to ensure incarcerated people, including other young Black men like him, aren’t shut out of the democratic process because of pending charges.
But Gavin Babineaux, the Republican election judge, said the decision wasn’t intentional. Babineaux, who is also Black, hosts a conservative TV show when he’s not working elections.
“They said, ‘Hey we need a big guy,’” he said, explaining how the GOP reached out to him. When he got to the polling location, he understood why.
Being in the jail on Election Day, where no incarcerated people chose Republican ballots, showed him that the Republican Party needs to do more outreach in the communities that cycle through the jail, he said.
“I think it’s a pretty good thing,” he said of voting in jail. “This is America and until you’re all the way convicted, you have the right to vote, so you should be able to.”