Criminal Justice

The Harris County Jail was used as a polling place for eligible incarcerated voters on Tuesday

The pilot program is the first polling place of its kind in Texas.

The Harris County Jail in downtown Houston, on April 12, 2021.

Eligible voters in the Harris County Jail were able to cast a ballot in person on Election Day, after the county introduced a polling place to the jail Tuesday for the Nov. 2 election.

The pilot program allows people arrested on or after Oct. 22 to vote in a secure area of the jail. An unsecured part of the jail is available for the public to vote.

To vote in person at the jail, people who are incarcerated have to already be registered to vote, have U.S. citizenship and can’t be on probation or parole for a previous felony charge.

It is the first such polling place in Texas. Cook County Jail in Chicago also opened a polling site in 2020.

Oct. 22 was the deadline to apply for mail-in ballots. Volunteers from Project Orange, a group that helps register incarcerated voters, worked in the jail to help people arrested before Oct. 22 register for absentee ballots. For those arrested after the deadline and likely to be jailed on Election Day, there was no longer an option to vote.

“You’d just be out of luck if you happened to get arrested within that voting period,” said Durrel Douglas, the founder and executive director of Project Orange.

Douglas said Tuesday’s voting site, which was set to give an estimated 100 people who are incarcerated the option to vote, is a test run for future elections. The eventual hope is to have the poll open to anyone incarcerated who wants to cast an in-person ballot on election day.

When people realize they can vote, people at the jail want to exercise that right, he added. Now he hopes the voting site will spark a conversation about reducing the disenfranchisement of voters involved in the criminal justice system.

“These people are impacted by this system,” he said. “They should have a voice.”

In a tweet posted the day before election day, Gonzalez said a majority of people involved in the justice system don’t vote due to a lack of information on voting. Casting a ballot while incarcerated also has extra hoops to jump through: Texas requires a photo ID to vote, but the jail confiscates incarcerated people’s possessions, including photo ID.

That means voters at the secured side of the jail need extra documentation to validate their identity. It’s the same process voters at any polling site go through if they’ve lost their driver’s license or passport.

There are more than 9,000 people in the Harris County Jail as of Tuesday. The vast majority have not been convicted of any crime, and are awaiting trial.

“Many (people) come here for a number of different reasons,” Gonzalez said. “It doesn't remove the right to vote, and we want this to be a ray for light to them.”

Harris County has been at the center of voting rights battles in recent years. Former county clerk Chris Hollins helped institute measures like drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting, which county leaders credit with record turnout in the 2020 election.

Those measures were challenged in court by conservatives, and ultimately banned this year when GOP-backed voting restrictions were signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in September.

Asked whether she anticipated Republican criticism over the polling place, county elections administrator Isabel Longoria said she wasn’t concerned, and that it was part of the county’s efforts to expand the franchise to everyone.

“You've got some people who like it, and some people who don't, but honestly, my job is the help the voters no matter what politics is happening," Longoria said.

“If you are a citizen and an eligible voter, those rights can never be denied,” she said.

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