Getting Out the Vote Behind Bars

Print More

With California election campaigns in full swing, interest groups are launching voter registration drives in neighborhoods, churches, union halls — and even jails.

Thousands of people in jails and on probation are being urged to vote following an obscure but potentially helpful legal ruling in 2012 in Riverside County, along with a change of heart in Sacramento.

The legal decision came after Vonya K. Quarles of Corona mounted a drive during the summer before the 2012 general election to make better citizens of inmates in Riverside County jails by registering them to vote.

As a result of the ruling by Riverside County Superior Court Judge Sharon J. Waters, voter registration material were made immediately available to inmates in the jails, and volunteers could visit to assist in registration. But the ruling did not come in time for the 2012 general election.

Now, in the first presidential election year since the ruling, Quarles and other advocates are ramping up get-out-the-vote drives in jails across Southern California with hopes of building on the Riverside experience.

“If you want people to be responsible, you want them to engage in the community and take responsibility for their lives — like with voting,” said Quarles — who is executive director and co-founder of Starting Over Inc., which provides transitional housing for women and children.

She certainly knows. As a youth in south Los Angeles, she had drug issues, which led to convictions and imprisonment. But when released, she cleaned up, had a 20-year career in the oil refinery industry, and then earned a law degree — joining the California Bar in 2013.

Along the way she learned the notion that convicts can’t vote, which many believe to be true, is in fact a myth.

In California people who have been convicted of either federal or state felonies and misdemeanors can vote — as long as they are not in state prison or on parole. (The provision blocking voting after a felony was rescinded in 1974 by a California constitutional amendment.)

And the number of California residents who fit into this category increased by between 60,000 and 70,000 after the state’s justice system realignment in 2011, whereby inmates convicted of lower-level, non-violent crimes were transferred to county jails or put on county-supervised probation.

A Hard Sell

In 2014, advocates in Alameda County won a Superior Court order that these individuals could vote. But then Secretary of State Debra Bowen appealed the order.

However, after years of efforts by inmate advocates, current Secretary of State Alex Padilla last year cancelled the appeal. Padilla’s decision followed years of efforts by activists around the state to help the formerly incarcerated lead productive lives.

But pushing for voting by those in jail remains a touchy subject, which some groups avoid.

In San Diego, officials of the League of Women Voters there declined to discuss the issue. While the American Civil Liberties Union of California is putting out information on such voting, San Diego affiliate officials also declined interview requests. San Diego County Register of Voters Michael Vu said his office wasn’t going into jails for registration.

Nonetheless, while the concept may be a tough sell to some sheriffs — who in California run the county jails — progress is being made.

For example, officials in Riverside Sheriff Stanley Sniff’s department say they have modified the informational voting pamphlet and keep voter registration forms readily available for the jail system’s 3,500 inmates.

“We are going above and beyond the settlement,” said Scot Collins, a chief deputy in the Riverside department.

At the Riverside Registrar of Voters office, Art Tinoco said that in 2014 staff provided the sheriff’s department with 1,000 registration forms, with 12 returned. He couldn’t say how many of those voted.

While the number low and less that satisfying for advocates, it is double the number previously returned for registration.

Meanwhile, systems used in some other counties, including Orange, are still seen as restricting the ability to vote.

For instance, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department — like others in San Diego, Imperial and San Bernardino — has a policy where eligible inmates can register to vote, but they must ask deputies for the documents.

“If you have to contact a deputy, we feel that is problematic,” said Quarles. “There are good deputies, but some are non-responsive to inmate needs. When it comes to a person’s right to voting material, they shouldn’t have to go through that kind of barrier.”

Neal Kelley, Orange County’s Registrar of Voters, said his agency provides voter registration material to Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ department; where deputies say they distribute the documents after inmate requests.

“At this moment, I am pretty comfortable” with the system, Kelley said.

For the 2012 General Election, Kelley’s office sent 1,400 registration documents to the sheriff for the jails — of those 46 were returned. For the 2014 election, 550 registration forms were sent, with 56 returned.

Officials said they had no records on voting from the jail.
Typically, there are about 6,500 inmates in Orange County jails.

In Southern California, only Los Angeles County has an active program involving both that region’s registrar of voters and trained and certified volunteers [who also get security clearances] to help register inmates in jails. Los Angeles has average jail population of about 22,000 inmates, the largest such system in the world.

Los Angeles provided records dating to 2004 for both jail registrants and those who voted. In 2012 for the General Election, for instance, 1,228 registered with 661 voting. In 2008, 599 registered and 305 voted.

Inmate advocates — including a number who were previously incarcerated themselves — say having certified volunteers go to jails is vital to increase voting.

While the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 2000 approved of a jail voter registration program, officials say it didn’t get any traction until about 2006.

That was when volunteers started working with the county registrar and the jails to boost registration, said Joseph Paul, who manages vocational services at Shields for Families, a non-profit agency in Compton.

“We decided to leverage the historical situation with an African American running for president to demonstrate the intention of democracy,” said Paul, who now has a coalition of at least 60 volunteers involved in registration.

“We use the right to vote as a way to educate our men and women,” he said. “People have felt ostracized and excluded; they felt the vote didn’t matter. We try to make it relevant.”

Such efforts were pioneered by a San Francisco advocacy group called: All of Us or None. [A line from a Bertolt Brecht poem.] The AOUON group also was co-plaintiff with Quarles in her Riverside lawsuit.

From San Quentin to the White House

Key among them is Dorsey Nunn, who himself was incarcerated more than 35 years ago for being involved in a murder.

It is a journey that has taken him from a cell at San Quentin State Prison to walking the halls of the White House; where he was invited after coining the phrase “ban the box,” an employment document notation for criminal history that is being eliminated nationally by legislation.

“When you get down deep, you see the voting right is the definition of citizenship,” said Nunn. “I use this issue to motivate people. The state should ensure the eligible have support to vote in all county jails.”

Hutchens’ office said in a statement: “To say that voter registration is key to empowering individuals is a little simplistic. [But] the act of voting is a good indicator of a person attempting to integrate into the community.”

The statement said the sheriff was supportive of efforts to increase inmate voting, as long as they weren’t disruptive and conformed with security requirements.

Building on Nunn’s philosophy, Quarles engaged Joshua E. Kim, an attorney for A New Way of Life Reentry Project in Los Angeles, for the litigation.

The Riverside decision is so obscure that it wasn’t known by several registrars of voters, including Kelley, who is the current president of the California Association of Clerks and Elected Officials.

While the Riverside ruling did not create a statewide precedent, Kim said it could be used to prompt recalcitrant Southern California counties to improve voting programs for inmates.

An advocate could file the case in a county like Orange and seek “judicial notice” of the decision, attorneys say. A Superior Court judge then would rule, with a sheriff intervening if desired.

“There is no reason this couldn’t be done in other counties,” said Kim.

Officials with the League of Women Voters‘ chapters in Orange County expressed interest when they learned from a reporter of the drives to increase registration in jails.

“That’s not something we have ever done,” said Joan Hake, a League volunteer for 25 years in the central region. “Absolutely, we might do that.”

“I think this is a very interesting subject,” said Susan Guilford of Orange, who is president of the organization coordinating the League’s local chapters. “I plan to put the idea on an agenda for one of our coming meetings.

In its statement, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department statement said it would “work hand in hand” with registrar-trained volunteers in any registration drive.

Rex Dalton can be reached directly at rexdalton@aol.com.

  • Bob Stevens

    Yes… Let the people in jail vote for less jails. Let the criminals vote for more lenient criminal laws. This is completely asinine. You don’t let children decide what to eat, where to go, what to do because they lack the understanding to do so. By committing crimes, criminals are telling the rest of the world that they are not fit to run their own lives let alone vote in how to run yours. When did this county, state, country become so pussified? Inmates running the asylum at its finest here in the golden state. Are we trying to take the title of Mexico away from our neighbors to the south?

  • LFOldTimer

    Well, if it makes an inmate feel better by giving him or her the right to vote while in prison – why not? Maybe it will help prevent prison rioting. Besides, a keen observer has to question the validity of a system that shows the voter approval polls of State and Federal elected politicians at 15% to 23% while 95% of the incumbents get reelected to office. The dots don’t connect. And no one has provided me with a good solid acceptable reason for that. Until that happens, I remain skeptical. So let the prisoners vote. I don’t care. Many times we vote and elect those who should be behind bars. So what does it really matter?

    • OCResident

      I find it sad that you’ve apparently given up on participating in our democratic system. I can’t say that I’m happy with the current state of affairs either, but to simply stop voting, to stop supporting causes, candidates or ballot measures that could change something that’s important to you isn’t the right answer. When engaged citizens like you give up, we fall further into the self fulfilling bipartisan bickering that produces nothing. Please don’t give up.

      With respect to re-engaging these soon-to-be and formerly incarcerated people into the process of voting, I can’t agree more with these efforts. As long as someone pays their societal debt by serving their time and being released, I see no reason they can’t be voters once again. These folks are adults and should be encouraged to participate as contributing members of our communities when they are released. To be denied full participation in society through residency restrictions, the inability to find employment, or the denial of their right to have a say in our democratic system, they are incentivized to re-offend, and I don’t see how that’s a good thing.