The Travis County sheriff’s office on Monday began training about two dozen volunteers to help an underrepresented population register to vote — county jail inmates — as part of a new effort 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, because they are either being held on misdemeanor charges or 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 have their perspectives represented in our elections,” said Elfant, who is also the county’s tax assessor. “Regardless of their circumstances, their votes count just like any other vote.”
At any given time, the Travis County Jail holds 2,500 inmates, 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 March primary. However, inmates can still be registered to vote for any runoffs in May and 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 General Educational Development and job training classes, Dark said, and kiosks in the cells will have information on how to register to vote.
“We want people to leave our facility stronger, better, 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.
The American-Statesman in October 2016 reported on some inmates’ difficulties with obtaining ballots.
According to the Travis County tax office, Texas is ranked 47th in the nation for voter registration and last in voter turnout.
“Inmates may have not been asking for this, but our citizenry is not registering and voting like other states,” Elfant said.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated from an earlier version that incorrectly stated that persons convicted of a felony offense must wait two years after completing their sentence, probation and parole to be eligible to vote. A 1997 Texas law signed by then-Gov. George Bush removed this waiting period.
WHO CAN VOTE IN TEXAS?
Jail inmates can be approved for a ballot if they meet certain criteria:
- Must be 18 or older.
- Must be a U.S. citizen.
- Must not have been found mentally incompetent by a judge.
- Must not be serving time for a felony conviction.
- Must have completed probation; must have been issued discharge papers by parole authorities or been issued a lawful pardon.
- Must be a registered voter.
- Must be a current resident of Texas.