As an elected leader, our highest duty, and what we take an oath to do, is to protect the constitutional rights and freedoms of our constituents. One of the most fundamental of these is the right to vote. Most Texans agree that voting should be safe, easy, and accessible to all, and while Dallas County has taken several steps to ensure access to the ballot box, there is, unfortunately, one group of eligible voters who have been denied their right to vote for far too long: the over 5,000 pretrial inmates at our Dallas County jail.
Let’s be clear – under Texas law, people who have been convicted of a felony are not eligible to vote, but pretrial inmates are legally innocent. One of the first aspects people learn in school about our legal system is that a person is innocent until proven guilty, and the vast majority of Dallas County jail inmates, and county jail inmates across the state, are detained pre-trial.
This means that they have not been convicted of any crime and are simply waiting in jail for their trial dates, typically because they do not have financial means to meet their bail. Others are facing only misdemeanor charges, and so, even if convicted, would still be eligible to vote.
The United States Supreme Court has already acknowledged that pre-trial detainees still have a constitutional right to vote if they are otherwise eligible, and that local governments must give them the means to do so. As the Court wrote, “it is the State’s affirmative act of restraining the individual’s freedom to act on his own behalf—through incarceration, institutionalization, or other similar restraint of personal liberty,” which triggers the need to provide an individual with the due process to exercise their constitutional rights.
Denying thousands of Dallas County voters the opportunity to cast their ballot, as we have done for so long, is wrong, and we need to fix it.
Currently, pre-trial detainees are not given an equal opportunity to cast their ballot. Although in theory Texas law allows incarcerated individuals to vote by mail if they are eligible, the reality of trying to procure a mail ballot application, receive, mark, and return the ballot in time prevents detainees from realistically using this option. It has been made even more difficult by our extreme state legislature, which has passed laws like Senate Bill 1, which make it more difficult to vote by mail. Further, individuals who are detained after the mail-ballot application deadline literally have no option to vote and are denied their constitutional right. Every person’s right to vote is sacred. With over 100 people detained per day, the number of eligible voters being deprived of their fundamental right to make their voice heard in our democracy is significant.
As we know, the criminal justice system is rife with deep-rooted racial biases, and people of color are arrested and detained at disproportionate rates. Not allowing detained but eligible voters an opportunity to vote will therefore exacerbate other racial disparities in voting and continue to shut people of color out of the democratic process.
That is why I am pushing for our Dallas County Commissioner’s Court to open a polling place at the Dallas County Jail for the 2022 November election, and all subsequent elections. No eligible voter should be denied the opportunity to participate in our elections.
Opening a polling place in the County Jail will take coordination between County offices, but we have already seen this happen successfully in our very state at the Harris County jail. Other counties across the country, such as Los Angeles County, Cook County (home to Chicago), and Washington, DC, have all proven that it is completely possible to successfully operate a jail-based polling place. Now, it is incumbent upon us in Dallas to figure out a way to ensure that all eligible voters are afforded their constitutional right to vote.
Clay Jenkins is the Dallas County Judge and is on the Advisory Committee of Texas Right to Vote.