Dallas County

Despite Calls for Polling Station, Sheriff Says Mail-In Ballots Are Just Fine at Dallas County Jail

Many inmates at local jails are eligible to vote, but the process often involves too many barriers.
Many inmates at local jails are eligible to vote, but the process often involves too many barriers. Pixabay
Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown said in a recent video on Facebook that she was visiting someone at a local hospital when two people stopped to ask if she would let jail inmates vote. It’s a question that’s come up a number of times, especially since a polling station was rolled out at Houston’s Harris County Jail in 2021.

“I had to explain to them that our inmates already vote,” she said. “There is already a process in place where our inmates mail in their ballots.”

She said it’s a viable and legitimate form of voting that many people use, in or out of jail. “Many of my constituents, because they are elderly or because they are shut in and unable to get out and about, use the mail-in ballot process,” Brown said. “This is the process that we use for eligible inmates at the Dallas County Jail.”

Inmates are eligible to vote as long as they haven’t been convicted of a felony.

She added: “Some folks would have you think that we’re not allowing people to vote. Such is not the case. They are voting. It’s just they are not doing so at a polling station.”

Ahead of elections in November, people have been advocating for polling stations at the jail to make it easier for inmates to vote. Earlier this year, the nonprofit organization Texas Organizing Project and several other groups sent a letter to county officials proposing a polling station at the jail. With low staffing levels at the jail already, some, like Brown, say it would be a logistical nightmare.

“Installing a polling station would require that we have additional persons to move inmates around for the purpose of taking them to the polls to vote,” Brown explained. “As you know, unfortunately, we’re already short-staffed in the Dallas County Jail. In addition, if we put a polling station on the secure side for inmates, we would be required to put one on the unsecured side as well for individuals who are not inmates — for the public, that is.”

State law requires that polling stations also be accessible to non-inmates. Staffing levels at the jail have been a problem throughout the pandemic. Some at the jail told the Observer in February they were working 16-hour days several days in a row because of staffing shortages. So, Brown says, the additional workload would be a challenge. But she sounds confident in the current system in the jail.

“People who are assigned to the custody of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department are able to vote if they are legally eligible,” she said. “They know that they are. We inform them that they are. They receive notices via several ways throughout the buildings and if they want to vote, they get an opportunity to vote.”

Some say, however, there are too many barriers for inmates to vote. These barriers are present in jails in Texas and across the country.

Most people in local jails can vote, according to the nonprofit organization Prison Policy Initiative. One of the biggest obstacles is just general confusion about voter eligibility. Some of this confusion stems from incorrect, confusing or incomplete information on voter registration forms, according to the organization.

Even if they know they’re eligible to vote, they may not have a form of ID that’s required to register. Additionally, delays in outgoing mail can cause inmates to miss registration deadlines. All of this adds up to what the Prison Policy Initiative calls de facto disenfranchisement.

Whether it’s difficult or not, Carvell Bowens, an organizer with Texas Organizing Project, says Dallas County Jail inmates need access to a polling station. “What we have going on essentially is a violation of people’s Constitutional rights,” Bowens said. He and others say they can't stand by and let that happen.
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn

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