Report: Wash. state jails fail to provide voting access

SEATTLE (AP) - While most of the country is actively engaged in the election process, an entire class of individuals -- inmates in Washington state jails -- can't participate because the officials charged with overseeing them have failed to provide the tools and information needed to make that happen, according to a new report.

An investigation by Disability Rights Washington found that only a handful of Washington state's 38 county jails have a policy for facilitating the voting process for inmates and few of those facilities actually follow those procedures, the report said.

The result is that thousands of citizens who have the constitutional right to vote are not able to register, receive ballots or cast a vote, the report said.

Unlike prison inmates, who have generally have felony convictions and have lost their voting rights, most jail inmates are awaiting trial or have been found guilty of a misdemeanor charge, so they maintain their voting rights.

"Given jails control of all information and materials coming into and out of their facilities, it is not surprising that when staff do not have a plan about how to inform people how they can register, get voting information, and cast a ballot while locked up in this highly restrictive environment, people do not vote," said David Carlson, the group's legal director and author of the report.

The lack of voting support disproportionately impacts people with disabilities, since people held in jails are four times more likely to have a disability than the general public, Carlson said.

People with disabilities are one of the largest voting blocks in the country, but they often face barriers do to a lack of accessibility, said Mark Stroh, the group's executive director.

"Much work is being done by various non-profits and political groups to get out the vote during this election cycle, and this is true in the disability community as well, but one area being ignored is the voting rights of people in our jails," he said.

Lori Augino, director of elections at the Washington Secretary of State's office, said Disability Rights Washington has been invited to share their concerns at their next Disability Advisory Committee meeting on Aug. 18.

Three Washington jails are the exception, the investigation found. Jails in Spokane and Kittitas counties, and the South Correctional Entity Regional Jail in Des Moines, Washington, have policies for providing voting access to inmates and actually facilitate voter registration, receipt of ballots and casting votes, the report said.

Officials in Spokane said they have a program in which a group of officers helps inmates register to vote and get voting information.

When the group visited the Island County Jail to ask about its voting policies, jail officials immediately took steps to improve access to the process, the report said. The jail worked with the county election office to start a voter education program in the jail and put up voter registration pamphlets.

The jail now provides inmates with mail-in ballots, the report said.

The group is asking other jails and election offices around the state to follow the Island County Jail's lead to ensure inmates can participate in the upcoming election.


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