Letter Introduction

Dear Judge Hidalgo, 

The Campaign Legal Center (“CLC”) and Dēmos write to respectfully urge the Harris County Commissioners Court to move forward with its approved plan to place voting machines inside of the Harris County Jail and to take any other steps necessary to ensure jailed, eligible voters are not disenfranchised this upcoming Election Day or any election moving forward. 

Download the full letter to the Harris County Commissioners Court 

Harris County Jail incarcerates nearly 9,000 people every day, making it one of the largest jails in the nation. Many of those incarcerated are eligible to vote. 

Harris County Jail incarcerates nearly 9,000 people every day, making it one of the largest jails in the nation.1 Many of those incarcerated are eligible to vote. For the last several years, Harris County has relied on the efforts of community groups like Houston Justice to reach out to incarcerated voters to help them register and vote by mail.2 These groups, though, must work with limited resources and limited access to the jail. Even if that were not the case, the most robust absentee voting program possible would still be insufficient to protect the constitutional rights of jailed voters in Harris County. Because Texas requires that absentee ballot request forms be received by the Clerk’s Office eleven days before each election3 and jailed voters are not qualified to cast emergency late absentee ballots,4 every voter jailed on or after that deadline has no means of accessing the ballot. Voters of color and low-income voters are disproportionately disenfranchised as a result of these practices. 

On August 27, 2019,5 this body took necessary action when it approved a measure to put a polling location inside Harris County Jail.6 In response to concerns voiced by Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, the Commissioners Court approved a working group to consider how such a polling location could work and to explore the feasibility of adding the new polling location in time for the upcoming November 5, 2019 election. Just two weeks later, Dr. Trautman sent a letter to the Court informing it that the working group determined “a polling location in County Correctional Facilities cannot be a workable solution” and the Ballot by Mail program “will remain in effect for the November and all future elections.”7 Two days after that, Dr. Trautman adopted this position again, testifying to the House Committee on Elections that she determined state election law barred her from putting voting machines inside Harris County Jail.8

Dr. Trautman’s determination, however, must be revisited. Harris County should not and cannot simply rely on its existing Ballot by Mail program to facilitate elections in Harris County Jail. While Dr. Trautman’s letter raises some valid concerns about the challenges of serving this vulnerable population of voters, it is nonetheless the County’s responsibility to do so. 

Download the full letter to the Harris County Commissioners Court to read more 

  • 1. See Jail Population Management, Harris County Sherriff’s Office: Mental Health and Jail Diversion Bureau, https://www.harriscountycit.org/diversion/jail-population-management/
  • 2. See Registering Voters Behind Bars, Houston Justice: Project Orange, https://www.houstonjustice.org/inmatejustice
  • 3. See Tex. Elec. Code § 84.007(c). 
  • 4. See Tex. Elec. Code § 102.001; see also Tex. Elec. Code § 103.001.
  • 5. We understand that this important first step was the result of significant advocacy by the All Campaign and Johnny Taylor, founder of the All Campaign, co-founder of Smart Yap Foundation, and M.E.T., LLC—in partnership with local officials including the Harris County Sherriff’s Office, the Harris County Clerk’s Office and the Harris County Commissioner’s Court—who supported Item No.14 for approval of voting booths and voting machines to be place in the Harris County Jail for the primary purpose of allowing inmates to exercise their constitutionally protected right to vote. We also understand that these advocates build on the progress on this issue made by the Black Heritage Society, the Greater Houston Justice Coalition, the Martin Luther King Center, Team Put Me Up, the South Park Coalition, Artists for Recovery Coalition, State Representative Harold Dutton, Ovide Duncantell (now deceased), Rev. Ed Small, Dwayne Lark, Barry Thompson, and Durrel Douglas.
  • 6. Commissioners Court Hearing, Harris County Commissioners Court, Item I Pt 3 of 3 at 1:31:44 (Aug. 27, 2019) http://harriscountytx.swagit.com/play/08272019-1010
  • 7. See Appendix A.
  • 8. See Invited Testimony by Diane Trautman, House Committee on Elections (Sept. 12, 2019) http://harriscountytx.swagit.com/play/09122019-1272.