Disability rights advocates: Let Washington inmates vote

A hand placing a ballot into a ballot box, "The Need for Accessible Voting in Jails, August 2016"
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Most jails in Washington State are doing “absolutely nothing” to facilitate the means for people with disabilities to exercise their right to vote, Disability Rights Washington alleged in an extensive new report, released August 3.

“People with disabilities are one of the largest voting blocks in this country, but they often face barriers to voting due to a lack of accessibility,” DRW Executive Director Mark Stroh said in a news release. “Much work is being done by various nonprofits 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.”

On any given day, about 12,000 people are confined in Washington State jails, which, as opposed to prisons, are for people awaiting trial or sentenced to crimes of usually less than one year. While exact numbers are not available in the state, an estimated 4 in 10 inmates nationwide have disabilities.

As part of its Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities (AVID) Jail Project, DRW investigated each of the state’s 38 county jails. While some of the jails have accommodation policies and some have policies about inmate voting, most jails lacked staff with knowledge of these policies or proactive procedures for providing the inmates the means to vote.

“Many jails, some of the few with policies and some without policies, said they would allow someone to vote, but no one has ever asked to register or vote,” the report states. “Given the lack of understanding by jail administrators and staff of their roles in supporting voting activities and the policies they should have in place to facilitate this activity, it is not surprising the average person who happens to be in jail during an election period may not know he or she can vote while in jail.”

Among the report’s recommendations, DRW called on jails to establish written policies and affirmative practices to facilitate voting activities, as well as work with local election agencies to ensure they are equipped with accessible voting machines.

In Pierce County, home of Tacoma, the report is already making an impact.

In response to the report, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office has already worked out a plan to deliver 1,000 registration forms to inmates, plus voter pamphlets, information posters, and eventually ballots and a ballot box, according to a Tacoma News Tribune editorial.

“Barriers to voting must be addressed systematically by the jail administration and the local election agency,” the report states. “While there is time to fix these failures before this year’s big elections, jails must take immediate steps to avoid stripping people with disabilities of their fundamental right to vote.”

Disability Rights Washington, the parent organization of Rooted in Rights, is the designated protection and advocacy agency in Washington, and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.