Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, people detained within Texas’ Harris County jail system have been speaking out through phone calls and letters, sharing with loved ones about the conditions inside and their ever present fears as the virus spreads. This election season, more of those inside are hoping to continue making their voices heard, but through another medium: the ballot. In Harris County, an unusual collaboration between a county sheriff and grassroots criminal justice reform groups is increasing voter registration for people detained pretrial and bringing in-jail voting within reach.  

The role of the sheriff is an elected position whose primary responsibility is the management of local jails. For sheriffs who have well-documented instances of abusing their power and operating their facilities in inhumane ways, increased access to the ballot could enable incarcerated people to vote them out of office. Around the country, that tension has made the relationship between sheriffs’ offices and efforts to increase ballot access for eligible incarcerated voters complicated and varied. As reported by Prism, organizers in states like Illinois faced pushback from the sheriffs association when crafting legislation that would promote access to the ballot for those detained pretrial. However, that legislation also received immense support from individual sheriffs like Tom Dart of Cook County.

With an average daily population of 7,450 people, Texas’ Harris County jail system is the third largest in the United States. Ongoing efforts to ensure eligible voters inside Harris County Jail can access the ballot have expanded in recent years and continued into 2020, and the same groups that have facilitated voter registration programs are also leaders in the fight to establish an in-jail polling site. That work has been the product of an active collaboration between current Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and local organizers from groups like Project Orange and the Texas Organizing Project. However, while progress toward standing up an in-jail polling site has been promising, structural barriers as well as the pandemic have ensured that it won’t be available for use during this election cycle—one where the sheriff’s office is up for grabs and which could compromise any hope of continued collaboration. 

In 2017, Durrel Douglas, founder and president of Houston Justice, was reading an article about pretrial detention and enfranchisement when he started asking himself what the voting process looked like for people detained pretrial. After making calls and conducting research, he found that there was in fact no mechanism for in-jail voting in Harris County or the state of Texas. That was the genesis for Project Orange, the Houston Justice initiative that works to register eligible voters incarcerated in Harris County Jail, where 70% of the population has yet to be convicted of a crime.

Project Orange began their work around the 2018 primary and as of this August, had registered over 2,500 voters inside the county jail. Although sifting through the county election law and developing a process for their voter registration program was complex, Douglas says that Gonzalez gave Project Orange the green light to work with the staff in the Harris County Sheriff’s Office to facilitate the work.

“Houston is a large county,” Douglas told Prism. “And someone else could have easily been like, ‘We can do it’ without collaborating with grassroots organizers and just doing the bare minimum without any real buy-in.”

In this case, both sides recognized the mutual benefits of a partnership: Effectively reaching people in jail means volunteers need to have relationships with those who manage the facilities. Meanwhile, for sheriffs, community partnerships can free them up to manage the many other priorities and daily tasks involved with running a county jail—particularly one as large as the Harris County Jail—while trusting that a registration program could be executed successfully.  

In an interview with Prism, Gonzalez said that the issue of in-jail voting and registration is often overlooked, but is crucial to restoring the dignity and humanity of those incarcerated.

“The restoration of rights for felons is a hot topic right now,” said Gonzalez, “but mass incarceration has disenfranchised a lot of people.”

For Gonzalez, the voter registration program was a key interest, and sits alongside a host of other progressive measures that he has supported during his four years in office. Those have included expanding the “inmate education program” run in collaboration with Houston Community College, advocating for misdemeanor bail reform and compassionate release and developing new alternatives to incarceration programs that address addiction, mental health, and poverty. Gonzalez said that programs like these speak to why we need a more “sophisticated understanding” of the root causes of incarceration.

That analysis diverges from that of many other sheriffs across the country, particularly those who have garnered headlines this year for racial profiling and collaborating with ICE amid protests against police violence and ICE detention. It’s also what has allowed Gonzalez to garner support and endorsement from groups like Houston Justice and Texas Organizing Project in his 2016 race and his current bid for reelection.

Devin Branch, lead organizer of Texas Organizing Project’s Right2Justice campaign, praises Gonzalez’ support for misdemeanor bail reform and his strong championing of voting rights for those inside. To have that support come from a sheriff, Branch says, is particularly consequential.

“Gonzalez has always been responsive to community questions,” said Branch. “We don’t always have agreement but he’s always willing to discuss.”

Thus, in this November’s election, organizers recognize that they could potentially lose one of the county’s more progressive elected officials.

Gonzalez’ Republican challenger Joe Danna takes a more tough on crime stance than his opponent, highlighting throughout his campaign his view that Harris County is “in the midst of a safety crisis” due to the low number of police officers and low clearance rates on sex crimes. Danna also diverges from Gonzalez in his opinion on current bail reform measures, arguing that they have “contributed to the degradation of safety in Harris County.”

Danna’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment about his views on in-jail voting programs.

The next step for this broader push to increase access to the ballot in Harris County is finishing the work of establishing a polling site within the county jail, similar to the one launched in Cook County this year. In 2019, the Harris County Commissioners Court authorized a proposal to place a polling location in the county’s jail but implementation of that measure was stalled amid objections made by the County Clerk Diane Trautman.

Earlier this year, organizers from Project Orange were in conversation with the Campaign Legal Center talking through a plan to get the polling site off the ground. However, those discussions stalled when the county shut down due to COVID-19. Apart from the new priorities that have emerged as a result of the pandemic, Gonzalez notes that there are other obstacles to establishing an in-jail polling site, including a lack of buy-in from other local leaders, the need for modernization of the relatively antiquated jail facility, and ongoing public safety concerns about members of the general public potentially being allowed to access the in-jail site. Still, organizers from Right2Justice and Project Orange, along with Gonzalez, say that the conversation isn’t going away.

In the meantime, up until Texas’ voter registration deadline earlier this month, volunteers with Project Orange continued to register those inside Harris County Jail and their visiting family members to vote, since they’re still able to use mail-in ballots in the absence of on-site voting. While doing so, Project Orange made sure to take safety precautions to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

Douglas says that there has been a great deal of excitement around the presidential race among those inside, though down-ballot races are immensely important and should matter just as much. In his electoral advocacy both inside the county jail and outside, he focuses less on pushing community members to vote for particular candidates and leans more toward educating them on the issues and keeping them abreast of their own voting rights. Doing so, he says, allows people to come to their own conclusions about who to cast their ballots for. That work is continuing to have an impact: The morning of our interview, he received a call from a mother whose son is currently incarcerated. She was interested in learning how she could help him vote.

“We’re trying to do everything we can,” said Douglas. “Everything we do this year is a first down.”

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.