Bring ballots behind bars in Pierce County

From the Editorial Board

Corrections Officer James Swick supervises an 84-bed unit at Pierce County Jail.
Corrections Officer James Swick supervises an 84-bed unit at Pierce County Jail. News Tribune file photo, 2013

Inmates at the Pierce County Jail have the right not to remain silent when it comes to exercising their right to vote, but few may know it. For last week’s primary election, the 1,200-plus inmates residing in the county jail had no access to voter registration or ballots.

These frustrated potential voters are locked up, but that doesn’t mean they should be locked out of the system.

Only a felony conviction would prohibit an inmate from exercising his or her right to vote, which means an estimated 90 percent of Pierce County jail inmates are eligible to cast ballots in the upcoming general election. But unless inmates fill out a change of address card (of which there are none in the jail), and send it in to the county auditor’s office, they cannot vote.

This impediment to the most basic of civil rights was recently brought to light by a study conducted by Disability Rights Washington, an independent advocacy organization. DRW has a particular interest in jails because inmates are four times more likely than the general population to report having at least one disability.

After visiting Washington’s 38 county jails, DRW’s broader finding was that most inmates in the state, disabled or not, experience voter disenfranchisement.

The idea of inmates not voting might lead many people to a “so what?” conclusion. Inmates might have broken laws, so why should they be able to vote for those who make or enforce them?

But it’s important to note that most jail inmates are awaiting trial, thus are presumed innocent until proved guilty. Innocent people have the right to fully participate in democratic elections.

County Auditor Julie Anderson acknowledged in an interview this week that voter outreach is non-existent at the downtown Tacoma jail. “Voting access needs to be better in all places where voters are place-bound, such as McNeil Island and Western State Hospital,” Anderson said.

But she was quick to point out that the onus is on these institutions. Her office is ready to assist, if requested.

Anderson said it’s up to the jails and state institutions to ensure their populations have access to mail, phone and computers, as well as assistive devices if they have a disability. She’s willing to deliver voter pamphlets and registration cards to jails, just as she does for local libraries and high schools.

Anderson raised the possibility of creating voting centers in the jail; the county currently has five voting centers for the general public, and on Election Day they provide touchscreen equipment and staff assistance for anyone who needs extra help casting a ballot.

But improvements can’t be made unless there’s a coordinated effort between the sheriff’s office, which runs the jail, and the auditor. Ed Troyer, Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman, stated the biggest hurdle is figuring out who would pay for it.

On Tuesday, Anderson said she’d not had any communication with the sheriff’s office.

But by Wednesday morning, after talking to a News Tribune editorial writer, Troyer said they had worked out a plan and that the auditor would deliver 1,000 registration forms, plus voter pamphlets, information posters and, eventually, ballots and a ballot box.

That’s great news in this important presidential election year. Pierce County inmates have lost freedoms, not civil rights — a key distinction.

In the state of Washington, unless and until people behind bars are convicted of felony crimes, they are shareholders in our community. Democracy is undermined when any voice is silenced.