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Washington State Initiative to Expand Jail Ballot Access Faces Local Pushback

by David M. Reutter

As of January 23, 2023, only $250,000 had been tapped of a $2.5 million allocation made by the Washington legislature in 2022 for grants to counties to ease ballot access for those in jail.

Many people in jail are eligible to vote because they are being detained pretrial or they have a low-level conviction. But these eligible voters are often denied ballots or even information about how to request one.

When Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton presented a plan in September 2022 to increase voter registration and participation in the County’s two jails with grant funds, she met stiff resistance and was denied approval.

Politics were clearly at the forefront. “So, if you’re a candidate that’s campaigning on a position of being tough on crime, obviously you’re not going to get a lot of votes out of the jail, and the inverse of that also could apply,” Commissioner Al French noted at the meeting.

Responded Dalton, “We don’t speculate how people vote. We just need to make sure that they have the opportunity to register to receive a ballot and return the ballot.”

But French, in an interview with Bolts Magazine, doubled down on his position that it “stacks the deck” to make it easier for eligible voters to cast ballots from jail. “We want to have a fair and open election, and to try and get voters who have a predisposition, it’s not in my mind consistent with free and open elections,” French said.

King and Pierce counties each received about $100,000. Thurston, Benton, and Kitsap counties also received funds to increase jail balloting.

Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall said the $42,000 her office received was used to train guards and distribute voter guides. Ballots cast from the jail increased from just three during the previous election to 40 in November 2022.

“The ability to vote and engage in a society [where] you did not necessarily feel that you belonged, that just carries 10,000 miles of value,” said Kurtis Robinson, vice president of the NAACP’s Spokane Branch.  “It is a real core underlying issue surrounding the issue of justice involvement. You cannot understand the importance of it and what it means when it’s not supported.”

A 2022 state law change increased the Spokane County Commission from three to five commissioners, and in November 2022, voters elected two new Democratic commissioners. Dalton estimated that 700 eligible voters are held in Spokane’s jails. She intends to present her plan to commissioners again.

Efforts to expand election participation by incarcerated voters are typically met with pushback from conservative politicians, like Commissioner French. But research has shown that few people vote from behind bars even when they have the opportunity. [See: PLN, Sep. 2022, p.50.] Moreover, it is not a sure bet that they won’t support candidates from certain conservative blocs – like evangelical Christians – with whom they might strongly identify.

Source: Bolts Magazine