New program expands voter registration effort at Travis County Jail

About two dozen Travis County sheriff’s office volunteers on Monday received training to help an underrepresented population register to vote — county jail inmates — as part of a new initiative to increase Texas participation in elections.

Travis County Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant said the vast majority of the county’s jail inmates are eligible to vote, either because they are being held on misdemeanor charges or are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted of a felony, which would bar them from voting. But most don’t know that, he said.

“I hope that eligible inmates will embrace the opportunity to to have their perspectives represented in our elections,” Elfant said. “Regardless of their circumstances, their votes count just like any other vote.”

RELATED: Jail inmates’ path to expressing vote from inside a cell isn’t always easy

At any given time, Travis County Jail holds 2,500 inmates, with about 65 percent of them detained without conviction and eligible to vote, sheriff’s officials said. Exact numbers of voting-eligible inmates are not known.

The initiative, similar to one introduced in Houston earlier this year called Project Orange, comes too late for the Feb. 5 deadline to register to vote in the upcoming March primary. However, inmates can still be registered to vote for any runoffs in May and in the general election in November.

After the announcement Monday, the registrar’s office began training about 20 sheriff’s office volunteers to register inmates to vote. The training for the volunteers, who already have clearance to enter the jails for other programs, comes at no cost to taxpayers, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Kristen Dark said.

Volunteers will be able to share information about voting during GED and job training classes, Dark said, and kiosks in the cells also will have information on how to register to vote.

“We want people to leave our facility stronger, better (and) prepared to go out and be successful and to add value to our community,” Sheriff Sally Hernandez said. “To educate them and to give them an opportunity to fulfill their civic duty is also very important.”

Inmates for several years have been allowed to vote while incarcerated by obtaining absentee ballots, Hernandez said. Some had previously complained to the American-Statesman, however, about facing difficulty with obtaining ballots.

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