In yet another 3-2 party-line vote, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved a proposal to place a polling location inside the county’s jail, possibly in time for this fall’s 2019 general election.
During the court’s August 27 public meeting, Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Precinct 2) motioned for the county clerk and sheriff to create a workgroup for the purpose of establishing the new polling location inside the jail, which is the largest county jail in the state.
Garcia, who formerly served as Harris County Sheriff, said he had previously discussed improving ballot access for incarcerated persons with State Representative Harold Dutton (D-Houston).
“From what I recall from that conversation, it’s their constitutional right, so we need to make sure we’re following that particular law.”
While Texas law prohibits convicted felons from voting during incarceration, parole, and probation, individuals in pre-trial detention are entitled to participate in elections according to a 1974 Supreme Court ruling, O’Brien v. Skinner.
In 2018, the organization reports registering 1,484 individuals to vote and assisting another 58 in requesting ballots by mail for the midterm elections.
Although County Clerk Diane Trautman recommended postponing the in-jail polling site until 2020 since planning had already been completed for the November 2019 elections, Garcia and Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Precinct 1) requested more immediate action.
“I will respectfully challenge you to see if we can get there now,” said Garcia.
Harris County will be joining Chicago’s Cook County in moving to place actual voting machines inside the jails.
Last month, Illinois Governor J.D. Pritzker (D) signed legislation mandating voting machines in the Cook County Jail and requiring all county jails in the state to develop programs ensuring ballot access and voter education for eligible inmates.
Former Governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican, vetoed similar legislation in Illinois last year.
According to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, there can be as many as 8,700 people incarcerated at the county jail on any given day.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards reports that there were 5,409 pretrial felon and 251 pre-trial misdemeanor suspects incarcerated in Harris County on August 1, 2019.
Although Garcia’s specific proposal had not been included in the posted agenda, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said commissioners could proceed without violating Open Meetings laws since the agenda had referenced adopting polling locations in general.
Commissioners Steve Radack (R-Precinct 3) and Jack Cagle (R-Precinct 4) expressed concerns and both voted against the measure.
Radack said if the county proceeded with the in-jail polling site, there needed to be a provision allowing any Harris County voter to use the location.
“That poll cannot be different than any other,” he said.
“I hear you and we’ll look into that,” answered Soard.
The county clerk also clarified that although the county had considered consolidating locations, they would not do so for the November 2019 elections. She reported that 757 locations, each allowing for county-wide voting, would be operating on Election Day.
“There are actually twenty more locations than the last mayoral and constitutional amendment election,” she added.
There were no speakers on hand to provide testimony either for or against the in-jail polling site, although during public comment on flood risk reduction projects, Houston mayoral candidate Johnny Taylor asked for a polling location inside the jail.
The push to provide greater ballot access is part of a broader movement for criminal justice reform.
Laws governing voting rights for convicted felons vary from state to state. In Vermont even incarcerated felons may vote, but via an absentee ballot process; there are no in-jail polling facilities.
Democrat presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has called for allowing convicted felons to vote from behind bars nationwide, and an ACLU lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a new Florida law on the enfranchisement of felons could also have national implications.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.