Harris County Fails to Provide Ballot Access to Thousands of Eligible Voters Inside Harris County Jail

Harris County Jail
Jail of the Harris County Sheriff's Office in Houston, TX. Public Domain.

Harris County Jail is one of the largest jails in the nation.

The majority of the 9,000 people incarcerated at Harris County Jail in Texas are being held pre-trial or for misdemeanor charges, meaning they remain eligible to vote despite their incarcerations.

The state has a constitutional obligation to ensure these voters can exercise their fundamental right to vote.

Although volunteers and organizers like Houston Justice have worked to provide these voters with ballot access, their reach is limited; Texas requires absentee ballot request forms be received by the Clerk’s Office eleven days before Election Day, so voters who are jailed after that deadline have no way of accessing the ballot.

On August 27, 2019, the Harris County Commissioners Court took the necessary step of approving a measure to turn Harris County Jail into a polling place.

This project would have made Harris County a leader in the fight to combat jail-based disenfranchisement and provided these long marginalized voters with the infrastructure necessary to exercise their constitutional rights.

Unfortunately, however, after only two weeks of study, Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman sent a letter to the Commissioners Court informing them that she could not move forward with the project because to do so would violate the Texas Election Code and require navigating significant administrative burdens. 

This answer is not good enough. Harris County has a Constitutional obligation to enfranchise the eligible voters in its jails. Its failure to do so disproportionately impacts people of color—specifically Black and Latino voters—and low-income people who are overrepresented in Harris County Jail’s population.

Without jail-based election infrastructure, the imposition of bail operates like a poll tax—a fee standing in between a low-income voter and the ballot box. The inability to pay bail, though, should never keep a voter from having their voice heard.

On September 23, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and Demos sent a letter to the Harris County Commissioners Court urging them to challenge Clerk Trautman’s perspective and move forward with this crucial enfranchisement initiative.

We believe not only that Texas’s Election Code allows Harris County to put a polling place in its jail, but also that the Constitution demands it.

Read the letter CLC and Demos sent to Harris County.

Dana Paikowsky is a Legal Fellow at the Campaign Legal Center.